Photo courtesy of Jen Catron & Paul Outlaw.


This Is What It Takes To Be An Artist In New York City

Meet Jen Catron and Paul Outlaw

Choosing to pursue art is, as many will tell you, not the wisest of decisions. The world is a vicious one, brutal to break into, and riddled with egos as big as mountains. For some, though, there isn't a choice. The creative bug bit them years ago and making something—be it writing, painting, performing, photographing, sculpting—is not only a means of expression, but personal survival. (This humble author, like many of his peers here in New York, knows this too well.)

Of course, creating and making in a city as big and challenging as New York is no easy feat. Jennifer Catron and Paul Outlaw, two artists and partners in life and creative crime, have worked their way up through the Big Apple's scene. Their work flirts with many mediums; their message is one of reflection but asked in a way that is both tongue-in-cheek and sincere. For them, art was never not an option. Small town upbringings and minds too curious for their own good got them to where they are today. It's a journey that's as romantic as you can probably imagine, but they're the first to tell you it hasn't been easy. 

With their latest show opening up today, at Tribeca's Postmasters Gallery, we caught up with the artists to chat art, risk-taking, emotional intelligence, and how the youth are the driving force behind, well, everything.

How did you get into art?Jennifer Catron: I grew up out in the middle of nowhere, and there just wasn’t much around. I feel like I was always just doing these crazy things out in the woods. I had pet raccoons I was training. I was making dwellings everywhere. As I got older, I started to realize that what I was doing was art.Paul Outlaw: You’ve been performing all your life.JC: Right! I have been. So, you know, I went to college and started taking art classes and it just kind of went from there.

Can you remember the first time you understood what art meant?PO: It takes so long to really understand artwork. It’s a lifelong process, I think.JC: Yeah, we still don’t understand. I mean, we do, but we’re constantly learning more about what art is and what its function is. It’s constantly changing, too.PO: There are certain realizations along the educational path. Like, I know I had a couple art history professors that really turned me onto what contemporary art was, and how that’s different from romantic style paintings, and classical art—JC: For me, the real realization of what art could be today came from going to London and going to the Saatchi Sensation show. That was important for me, just to actually see contemporary art. It really struck me, and it seemed almost transcendent. That seems a little cheesy, but there was that moment of like, “Oh, I can apply this to my life.”PO: Similarly, for me, it would be coming to New York and seeing contemporary artwork at the galleries and the museums as like a teenager. I’m from a small Alabama town. You don’t get the kind of exposure New York gets there or probably most of the country. Seeing artwork made in New York is so different than what you’re taught, especially in Alabama. A whole new world opened up, and realizing that we’re actually good at it helped us down the track.

What were you exposed to then?PO: Initially, it was the Picassos, the van Goghs—JC: Monets...PO: Monets, which were different from traditional paintings. They were especially radical for their time. But that really got me exposed, really got me interested in pursuing these things because they were so different from a photo-realism painting or classical painting.

Is there a certain experience, professor, or lesson that you learned that has stuck with you throughout your career?PO: Something that has really stuck with me has been a professor in my undergrad studies that said you should imitate everyone that you respect, everyone that you admire to a certain point, just to learn from them, and learn what they’ve done. After that, it’s much more important to be yourself and to go with what it is that makes you put yourself in the artwork and continue forward in that regard, instead of copying other people. Uniqueness is so important in this field. It’s about going against the grain and not doing what everyone tells you to; trying different things, and believing in them, and presenting them as if they were the next big thing—like this is the change, this is the push.JC: For me it was during grad school, and I had this crazy idea where I wanted to taxidermy a hundred mice and hang them from ceiling. I was really overthinking it. I couldn’t figure out why I wanted to do it. I felt like I needed a really good reason to, and the teacher, the artist in residence was just like, “Just do it.” That really stuck with me. Realizing that some of the inclinations you’re having are meaningful, and just running with it. And then, as you progress, sometimes, in retrospect, it makes more sense why you are doing what you’re doing, and you can pull it all together.

There’s a huge risk in pursuing art as a career, in general.JC: Oh, yeah. It’s not a smart decision. [Laughs.]

How did you convince yourself art was the career you wanted?JC: It was a big struggle for me because I can be rather sensible at times. Art is not smart financially. It’s very very fulfilling, but not financially smart. For me, I kept on going back and forth on what to do, and art was too important to me. I just had to do it.PO: I think, for certain people in the world, there’s not really a choice. There’s no way we couldn’t pursue what we are doing. The alternatives were so distasteful—working in an office, or being a doctor, or things that do make money. Reading law books—things like that are just so out of my element. I could imagine doing them, but the fulfillment and satisfaction would just not be there. It would be totally lackluster. This is what provides us the most excitement; this is why we do everything else we do, in order to make our artwork, to show our artwork, to share our artwork with people. That’s the greatest satisfaction I think both of us get in life.JC: Yes. I live for that.PO: It’s definitely our driving motivation.

What do you think is more important: intellectual intelligence or emotional intelligence?JC: Oh, you have to have both.PO: That’s a fun comparison, though.JC: We both use both elements in our art, but that’s not to say that, for other people, they can use a variation.PO: A well-rounded intelligence is ideal, obviously. You want emotional intelligence and academic intelligence.JC: But you have to know when to turn them on and off. You have to be able to look at your work and have an intellectual framework for it, and discuss the philosophical underpinnings, and then you kind of have to just forget all of that at the same time whenever you’re making things. So, throw it all away, and just really go for it and take some risks and not really think about it. So, you know, for us, it’s been kind of a lifelong challenge to try to balance those two elements—to be able to go and discuss the framework for what we’re thinking of, and then also to be able just to do it.

Can you speak to your dynamic together?PO: We don’t recommend collaboration. It’s something that we’ve been doing for a long time now. I think we’ve been collaborating for six or seven years, almost exclusively. Our independent practices have become almost not existent.JC: And it wasn’t intentional by any means. We would be discussing all these things and someone would have an idea and the next person would just expand upon it to the point where the ideas became inseparable. We couldn’t figure out whose idea it was anymore, because of the building process that happened. PO: Long-term collaborations are not the norm—in any creative field. I think, creatively, people have such large egos that they’re incredibly hard to work together, but we just happened to click with each other. All of our ideas are very much on the same page. We’re only improving each other’s ideas.JC: But I do think collaborations are becoming more of a thing, though. There's a community.PO: It takes the right people to do it, otherwise it would be disastrous.JC: And we have different skillsets, too—PO: That complement each other.JC: It’s motivation, too. You know, if you’re working alone, it’s really hard to motivate yourself to finish something. Then, when you’re working with someone else, it’s like you have to do it or else you'll let them down.

What would you say is the pulse of the New York art scene right now? Is it bustling? Is it too saturated?JC: I think it’s really in flux right now. It’s really changing. PO: It’s at an odd point right now.JC: It’s really interesting to us. There’s Chelsea, where it’s becoming kind of museum-like. You have mega galleries that are kind of taking over Chelsea, and a lot of the galleries, that are a little more experimental, are unsure of their place there. And you have the Lower East Side, which is showing younger artists. There’s Brooklyn, which is an artist-run space. That’s very much compartmentalizing. That’s a generalization.PO: The heartbeat of the art world is the young people.JC: Yes.PO: It always has been. It probably always will be. It’s the youth that pumps in new blood and new life and a new experimental nature.JC: It’s turning around the market. The market’s very saturated right now with a certain type of artist that people are buying off the market and reselling them.PO: The young people don’t have to live up to those expectations. Maybe they’re not selling, or maybe they don’t care about selling. That’s what gives them the freedom to produce things that are outrageous, completely out of context, and beautiful in so many ways. It’s the freedom of youth that makes the art world move. Right now, it’s not so much in Chelsea anymore like it used to be.JC: They’re youthful. We’ll let them explain themselves more than us. It’s really exciting to be a part of right now. There’s a distaste from the younger people of the market-driven art world, and because of that, it’s really making some leaps and bounds, you know, the art world’s really changing.

What would you say to someone who is either in college or thinking of pursuing art within the academic field, or even just art in general? What are some words of encouragement?JC: If you can’t live without doing it, then you know you just have to pursue it. It’s tough; it’s not easy, but if it’s something that you love, then it’s one of the most fulfilling things you could ever do. Our lives are just full and exciting.PO: And don’t make excuses not to do it. You just have to do it, and if it’s something that you love, and something that you feel the desire to produce and express, you have to do it—no matter what it takes. It takes time and money and energy. That’s what you devote to it.JC: If you have to work a day job and in the evening make your art, so be it.PO: Because guess what? We still are. We’re still working day jobs.JC: Well, kind of, but yeah.PO: Expression is such an important part of your—JC: Life. Everyone’s life.PO: Your total persona. Your person. Expression is such a huge part of it that you can’t deny it.JC: Well it’s an important part of the culture.PO: It can’t be denied. You have to nurture it.