Elaine Slayton Akin told me a secret the first time we met for coffee—she has a slight obsession with Marie-Antoinette.
She traveled to Paris because of the affection and had to scale the walls of Versailles at night after lingering too long and the grounds closed.
Akin's spirit for the misunderstood royal figure and, later, revolutionary female artists much like Marie-Antoinette's court painter Louise Élizabeth Vigée Le Brun, actually launched her career.
Antoinette became the topic of her senior thesis in graduate school, and Akin now lives in the ever-growing creative mecca of Nashville where she writes about art and artists. Her work has appeared in numerous publications and she is employed at The Frist Center For The Visual Arts.
My path crossed Elaine’s in Nashville, where we started this conversation about defining who you are and what the process of self-discovery involves, risks and all.
1. Why visual art? What was the moment you were hooked?
I can actually pinpoint the season my path shifted toward visual art. I was an English major in my junior year of college, and I had discussed with my advisor what I could do in the real world with such a degree. My interest as a youth and teenager in drawing and design led him to suggest marketing, and we agreed that an art minor would do me some good one way or another. As part of that minor, I had to take an introductory art history course, which actually enthralled me, more than studio art. I fell in love to the hum of an old-school slide projector and the sound of Dr. Robert Torchia’s voice explaining how the Nike of Samothrace imitated the prow of an ancient Greek ship. (Fun fact: When I went to Paris in 2013, I specifically sought out the sculpture at the Louvre because it means so much to me; it was off exhibit for conservation. Womp womp.)
I think I find art history so fascinating because it is, to me, the most direct way to connect interpersonally. And anyone can do it; it’s so accessible! Pre-modern art tells us a lot about ourselves and about humans, where we came from and where we’re going. And portraits specifically, which I studied the most, contain little clues (“attributes” in art history terminology) to knowing someone we would otherwise never know—major characters of the past such as Marie-Antoinette, Napoleon, and the famous 18th-century British actress Sarah Siddons.
2. What does the life of a writer dedicated to art look like? What milestones in the pursuit of your craft meant the most?
As a writer, I’m a little bit obsessed with words. That’s not to say I always use them perfectly in every context. And often I find myself consumed for days by one word in one sentence in one essay (one would think that words effortlessly flow from a person who writes hundreds of words a day, right? Sometimes they don't).
But seriously, day-to-day looks a lot like a marathon, and I mean that in the most inspiring way possible. Writing as a mindset . . . as a lifestyle, whether professionally or as a hobby, is not unlike a salaried position—even if you’re not getting paid extra for the long hours, sometimes it’s impossible to turn your brain off from an idea. You always “take your work home” in a sense because content really is all around all the time in visual culture. What a blessing! I’ll see a random model on a billboard for a jewelry ad on my commute home, and something about her pose or attire will remind me of a centuries-old portrait. I’m left thinking, Whoa, what’s going on there? That’s still a thing?
A milestone . . . my first real “writing gig” outside of school came in 2010 just as I was completing my master’s degree in Memphis. A professor-mentor asked me to join the Number: Inc board as an Arkansas correspondent. It was my first exposure to art journalism, and I’ll always be thankful for the opportunity. Learned a lot. The first review I wrote for Number covered the Arkansas Arts Center’s annual Delta exhibition, a major show in my home state. Number was absolutely pivotal in my pursuit of art writing long-term.
3. Who was your most interesting interview? What was so intriguing about them?
My most interesting interview may be my most recent. I wrote a spotlight piece on DC-based artist Teresa Oaxaca for NashvilleArts magazine’s March 2016 issue. Oaxaca paints in the Baroque style of the Old Masters—really unique for today. Even more unique is Oaxaca’s immersion technique, which I compared to “method” acting in theater: she surrounds herself with period objects and dress to prepare for the painting process.
I really like her. Many artists in post-modernism seem to be so desperately grasping for originality that they completely miss the point. Oaxaca certainly breathes new life into the Baroque style with contemporary subject matter and perspective, but she does not pretend to recreate the wheel. She paints what she likes, and there’s authenticity in that.
4. Did you ever doubt that this was the right path for you?
Absolutely - Ha. I mean I think [hope] that’s totally normal! There are many pressures placed on young adults, particularly right after finishing higher ed (the “quarter-life crisis,” I have joked with friends), to identify a single career path to follow forever, and I have certainly buckled under them at times. With the right incubator and creative peers cheering you on, however, any given interest can morph into multiple variations over time. I think it’s okay to leave the door open to other opportunities within reason. I don’t like being boxed in, but I do think I will write about art in some capacity or another for the rest of my life.
5. What has studying artists taught you about perseverance?
I addressed this a little bit in question #2, but I would say that more than art itself, moving to a new city has taught me much about perseverance in regards to art. For better or worse, art journalism and publishing in most cities is driven by finding an “in”—the right contact that appreciates your work and that will take a chance on you. That could be an editor, a gallerist, an artist, a fellow writer, etc. Once the first story is a success and you’ve made a good impression, things tend to fall into place from there. Given the relational nature of art writing, you can imagine why moving to a new city with no relationships and no overlap from previous relationships poses a challenge.
Hitting a few walls initially, I considered putting writing on hold indefinitely. It comes down to how much you want it and how inspired you feel. I didn’t realize how much I desired to write about art until I was finally asked to review an exhibition here in Nashville, and I geeked out. I suppose that’s some version of perseverance—not giving up, even though you sort of gave up…only for an itty bitty second. ;-)
I just realized that you said studying “artists” and not art. Ha. My bad. I’d like to say one thing briefly on that. I admire artists of all kinds, but as a woman, there is a special place in my heart for women artists. It’s an uphill battle for equitable opportunity, compensation, and respect for women in any profession (you see this as far back as Artemisia Gentileschi [Italian Baroque] and Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun [French Rococo and Neoclassicism]), so seeing career artists who are women and have considerable influence in the art world today is empowering.
6. In our modern culture, there is so much dialogue about creativity, art and its meaning. How should average humans like us approach the conversation? How can we support artists? Do we need to buy more expensive art?
Well, you are no average human, and I would venture that nor are your readers, but I firmly believe that every individual is capable of creativity, because creativity is not limited exclusively to the fine arts. I hate to see people who don’t consider themselves “artsy” intimidated by a gallery, museum, or other arts venue because they feel a lack of understanding. I bet any given artist today would tell you that, for the most part, they want viewers of their art to gather their own interpretations and not be swayed too heavily by an artist statement. Art is for all, and no interpretation is incorrect.
Supporting artists…while it's certainly nice if you can, it doesn’t have to be in a big, buy-a-$10,000-painting-from-a-gallery kind of thing. I’ve found equally cultivated and affordable art at high school and college student sales, or even through friends who “dabble” in art on the side of a completely separate job and just happen to be crazy talented. The prices are fair (under $500) because the artists are still honing their crafts, and your patronage helps to jumpstart an emerging artist’s career.
7. What would you be doing if you weren't on your current path?
Hands down I would own a boutique. Not exactly sure what would make mine unique, but I very much enjoy apparel and accessories and putting them together in unusual yet cohesive ways. I know I at least have good taste in one aspect: handbags! Thanks, Lilyan James, for making looking good one step easier.