Odd Jobs is a column exploring artists’ varied and untraditional career arcs. For this installment I spoke with Mary Reid Kelley, whose videos explore the condition of women throughout history by reassessing canonical literary and historical narratives. Reid Kelley writes the scripts, designs the sets, props, and costumes, and performs the leading roles. She and her partner, Patrick Kelley, produce all of the videos. Her videos and installations have been screened, exhibited, and performed at numerous national and international venues, including the Hammer Museum, the Tate Modern, and the Wexner Center for the Arts. She is a senior critic at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design and a critic in painting at the Yale University School of Art.
Calder Yates: You were born in Greenville, South Carolina, and then went to St. Olaf College. What did you do after graduating?
Mary Reid Kelley: I was always a food-service person. After college I worked at a coffee shop in town. Eventually I got a regular waitressing job at a restaurant, which really worked well for me. I was able to work twenty or twenty-five hours a week, make enough to live on, and spend a lot of time in my studio.
CY: Is that what you did up until you went to Yale?
MRK: Yup, that’s what I did. And the restaurant—it was kind of a wine bar—I did a little bit of management. I think you can really learn a lot about people. If you have a job where you’re not miserable and you’re not getting stepped on and abused, which you’re vulnerable to as a low-wage worker in a lot of service industries, I think there’s a lot of opportunities for observation and benign spying.
CY: After Yale, what did you end up doing?
MRK: Well, my partner was teaching full time at a small college in Maryland while I was in New Haven. We made this decision to live apart entirely for financial reasons. It was hard for both of us. I think we would have done better if we both had been in New Haven and just trusted that Pat would find something. When I left Yale, Pat switched jobs and taught at Skidmore.
I got lucky right out of school and started showing with a gallery [Fredericks & Freiser] in New York. I started making a little money with them, but it wasn’t enough to live on if I did not have a partner who was employed full time. Eventually, Pat quit his job. It took us about three years to begin making enough money from the video work so that Pat could collaborate with me full time, which allowed the work to be more complicated. Ever since then we’ve been self-employed.
CY: It’s pretty amazing that the two of you met and have this creative partnership together.
MRK: It’s definitely very fruitful. But just because you’re collaborating and you’re committed, it doesn’t mean the relationship is conflict-free. There are always some serious, creative, organizational, or division-of-labor problems to solve. And we have to solve them together.
We’ve gone back and forth with who’s the breadwinner and at what time. We’ve kind of just supported each other. When I went to school, I really wasn’t making any money. Pat was making the money. Now we consider what we make to be equally both of ours. And I realized what an enormous benefit it was for me, not just in terms of financial stability but also emotional stability.
I think if you, as an artist, have any source of help, whether it’s a family member who wants to give you a hand, or if you have a good romantic partnership that can get you through all the unpredictability of being an artist, you should just take it.
CY: I remember reading this New York Times article about Sheryl Sandberg’s husband. Not that Sheryl Sandberg is any kind of a model for intersectional feminist success or achievement, but her husband, and how he functioned in the relationship, definitely seemed like a model for, I don’t know…a feminist husband?
MRK: She often mentions that a good romantic partner can bring stability and confidence to you professionally. And I think that type of giving credit is important.
It is the case that Pat and I work full-time together. The process always begins with my research and writing, but I’ve been sharing more and letting him into the process earlier, which changes the authorial dynamics. But the way that things have evolved, I am more or less the public face of the work. However, if anyone knows very much about the work, if anyone goes beneath the surface of the work, Pat is there and the work is attributed to us both.
Because we both acknowledge that the backbone of the work is the writing and the script, which is entirely my task, then we’re willing to live with this kind of situation…of unequal acknowledgment for the work that we do. Sometimes this is hard for both of us. But it’s something that we both have to live with.
CY: When an artist has a separate job or income away from their art practice, sometimes they’re shy about acknowledging it. What do you attribute that to?
MRK: I think that when people say, “Yeah I’m 28, I’m a waitress and I have a college degree,” which is the position that I was in before I went back to school, it’s your pride. You don’t always know how to prove that you’ve achieved a measure of success, unless it comes with market success or gallery representation or being included in those high-status shows or whatever.
Also it’s completely a result of people largely accepting whatever value the market confers upon their work. There are some artists who do really, really well on the market, but their names don’t come up when you talk to other artists. There are other artists who are incredibly important and vital and who have a very small market footprint. And then there are artists who are kind of in the middle.
There isn’t any simple or single path that you can walk down and, at the end of it, you’ll be an artist. You just kind of have to grope along blindly. People are so demanding that you cough up the information on what you’re about, and you may not be able to give that when you’re a young artist, or even later on in your career.
I just want to tell you that this [column] is exactly the kind of thing I would love to have read when I was twenty and it was beginning to occur to me that I wanted to be an artist but I didn’t know at all how you did that.