Artist Spotlight: Devin Balara

I first met Devin Balara on my friend’s twenty-first birthday in college.  They were roommates and inseparable comrades.  We danced our way around the Jacksonville bar scene and landed back at their beach shack in the early hours of the morning where we laughed and listened to vinyls and Devin handed the birthday-girl her present; a necklace made from iron she’d welded into the shape of an infinity symbol.  Today in Bloomington Indiana,  she spends her time shaping eager minds as an Associate Instructor of 3D Design while working toward an MFA in Sculpture at Indiana University.  During a recent trip I took to Jacksonville for a conference on teaching Advanced Placement Literature, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Devin, too, was back in town for the week.  We caught-up over burritos at our favorite spot downtown, a colorful restaurant and bar called the Burrito Gallery, that features the work of a new artist every month.  I left that night feeling excited and re-charged, and contacted her shortly after to schedule an interview for American Pen and Ink.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us a little bit about how you discovered the art world- what possessed you to become an artist?

DEVIN BALARA

It all started when my mom wanted me to shut up and I was really little.  She would put me in a plastic kiddie pool and let me finger paint for hours and hours and hours.  Fast forward to when my mom was working as a dog groomer and she would have me help her do certain things like make these little bows for the dogs’ hair.  So I got really excited about making those things because for some reason I really liked the repetitive process.  I’d come home from school and finish my homework and be like, “Do you need me to make any bows?” And then she’d be like, “What?  You just made thirty of them yesterday.”  I guess those were early indications of a propensity toward creativity, but I never took a formal art class until I got to UNF.  I learned how to weld in a sculpture class and that was it.

INTERVIEWER

Would you say that your fascination with repetition has informed your work in a way that makes it uniquely yours?

DEVIN BALARA

It’s always been kind of a tendency that I’ve had and it just seems that it occurs in everyone in some form- even involuntary repetitions that happen inside of us daily that allow us to live.  It seems like people are maybe more concerned with breaking out of repetitive actions but there’s this comfort that comes with it too- it’s sort of a strange dichotomy.  I’m obsessive and I like working that way and it’s a kind of meditation in a sense.  Some people look at my work and say, “That would drive me f***ing crazy” and I just think, “I would love to do this all day.”   It’s my signature at this point.

INTERVIEWER

What do you hope others can take away from your work?

DEVIN BALARA

I feel like the people who make concept art and the people who make functional art are constantly at each other’s throats but I’m somewhere right in the middle.  It’s important to me that the things I make are well-made and exhibit a dedication to hard work, process, and craftsmanship.

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned two art worlds that seem to be in constant competition for a truer “purpose”.  What do you think is art’s most important role in society?

DEVIN BALARA

Art should allow self-directed research.  It should present ideas in a way that can be understood differently, in less of a textbook way.   Our ideas aren’t always reliable and art should encourage us to consider that.  By making an idea physical, we give it longevity, and are able to preserve different approaches.

INTERVIEWER

Are there any artists that have particularly influenced your work or affected the way you approach an idea?

DEVIN BALARA

Alan McCollum‘s work is extremely repetitive and there’s no real divide between his work and his writing about his work, which I’m really drawn to.

The Surrogates, (blank paintings cast from an absent original) via their reduced attributes and their relentless sameness… render the gallery into a quasi-theatrical space which seemed to ‘stand for’ a gallery; and by extension, this rendered me into a sort of caricature of an artist, and the viewers became performers and so forth. In trying to objectify the conventions of art production, I theatricalized the whole situation…

"Plaster Surrogates" by Allan McCollum

“Plaster Surrogates” by Allan McCollum

There’s something more comforting about walking through a place and being surrounded by objects that you’re familiar with, which is probably why I’m a big fan of Miranda July‘s work too- and the idea that whatever objects the people she interviews are selling become a mirror to their own identity.  I also have a lot of respect for Alix Lambert’s project-based artwork.  She married and divorced three men and one woman in the space of just six months for a piece called Wedding Project and the display was just all of the documentation of everything.  A few years later she created this fake all-girl punk band called Platipussy and made a fictional documentary of the band’s hardships.  She kind of became a mentor to me while she taught here at Indiana University and always encouraged all of these small inconsequential ideas.  She always told me to just do it.  If you’re sitting around doubting yourself then the artistic process is never going to happen.

INTERVIEWER

Speaking of the artistic process, how would you say your work is connected to the art of story-telling?  Who are the “characters” in your stories?

DEVIN BALARA

When you make something over and over again it tells the story of the process unfolding before you- it becomes this mass activity.  Recently, my work has explored suburban aesthetics, and the illusion of choice.   I invented this character in my mind of this woman who lives in the suburbs and who loves to redecorate her place every year as sort of an annual reinvention of herself.  I made this piece out of endless tacked on layers of all of these fabrics and the bottom is reminiscent of a floor plan of a home.   I guess I wanted to tell the story of a house that had a physical memory of all the ways it’s ever been decorated and weighed down.

“Domestic Sediment” by Devin Balara

I grew up in Brandon, Florida outside of Tampa.  I remember distinctly going to this friend’s house around the age of eleven or twelve and realizing that my friend’s house had the same floor plan as mine.  I walked around the house saying, “This is my bedroom  and this is my mom’s bedroom, and this is my kitchen and this is my closet…”  I was so freaked out and went home like, “Mom, ________________ has the same house as us!”  It was like because our homes shared an identical structure I could imagine what any person in it would be doing at any given moment.  I like to read fiction.  I like to read Raymond Carver’s short stories when I’m feeling overwhelmed with ideas because I’m all over the place.

INTERVIEWER

Have you found any themes, concepts, or stories continuing to emerge in the work that you do?

DEVIN BALARA

“White people problems”- these decisions that we think are so difficult to make.  Disdain for your environment because it is so homogeneous.  Not industry, but the culture that results because of industry, like suburbs.  The way our lifestyles have become a product of industry.  There are certain stereotypes about working with certain mediums that can be frustrating, though- like, If you’re working with wood you must be talking about nature.  If you’re working with fabric you must be talking about feminism.  I’m always going to be a dirty welder at heart but steel as a medium speaks about industry itself  and has all these things that go with it that aren’t necessarily things I’m interested in.  Medium has grown with my notion of what art can be.  I like to build and make more than anything.  Right now I’m somewhere in between making things that I can explain to my mom and convoluted poetic statements about humanity as a whole.  People ask me, “What do you sculpt?”  And I’ll say, “Well, want to see a video of me rollerskating?”

INTERVIEWER

What are you currently working on?

DEVIN BALARA

Currently I need to clean my studio.  I was really inspired when I went to Pompeii and saw all of these “ruins” in one way or another.  Spruced up ruins or things that were just left.  That’s where my research is standing now- thinking of a country as young as America.  Asking myself how does something get established as a ruin.   How much time has to go by?  What would it be like to go on a tour through the suburbs 5,000 years from now ?

INTERVIEWER

What is the most obscure, horrifying, or interesting human behavior you’ve reflected on?  What makes it uniquely human or worth considering?

DEVIN BALARA

It’s looking at me right now.  It’s a man that’s covered in these tiny little parrots.   I grew up with birds that talked.  They have this way of kind of revealing the kinds of things about yourself that you didn’t realize about yourself and act as a mirror to your own repetitive nature.   My mom’s bird would imitate this hacking smoking cough my mom used to have.  The piece is this kind of “life-of-the-party” character whose every repetitive gesture or anecdote seems to be dictated by these tiny parrots living inside of him.

“Parody” by Devin Balara

INTERVIEWER

Which human drive do you feel is ultimately more at work in the survival of our species today- competition or empathy?  Why?

DEVIN BALARA

Probably Empatition.  Both of them are at work, but while competition is what often motivates us, empathy is what actually keeps us alive.   I’ve found that artists tend to be some of the more empathetic people and that “art world competition” is mostly imagined.  Having empathy for ideas- generally accepting that  you don’t know everything- it’s essential.

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