For 17 years Jeanne Claire van Ryzin was the arts critic and reporter for the Austin American-Statesman for which she covered visual art, theater, dance, music, performance, public art, architecture and just about any combination thereof. In addition, she has written for the New York Times, Architecture magazine, Dwell magazine, Icon design magazine (UK), Art Papers, the Review of Contemporary Fiction and American Craft magazine, among other publications. Van Ryzin holds a B.A. in English from Barnard College, Columbia University, and an M.A. in creative writing from The University of Texas at Austin.
We’re running out of room to display everything we have so… the painted found wood composition is by husband, Aldo Valdés Böhm. The small painting (“Pink Shadow,” 2011) is by Sonya Berg. The cast bronze pine twig is Beverly Penn.
Thao Votang: How did you find yourself writing about the arts? Even though your beat has been the arts at large, I like to think the visual arts grabbed most of your attention. What draws you to writing about visual art?
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin: I’ve always wanted to write; it’s been a desire since my teenage years. And my family, my upbringing, was very cultured, very academic, with liberal parents who encouraged curiosity.
So when it came time to figure out how to make a living from it and put it all together, I naturally gravitated towards the culture industry as it were. But I never intended to be an arts journalist at a daily newspaper.
After graduate school I spent three years as a grant writer for what was then called Laguna Gloria Art Museum (now The Contemporary Austin), then spent five years as the public relations director for UT’s Harry Ransom Center. I left the day job and spent a couple of years freelancing before being hired by the American-Statesman.
In the black frame is an untitled print, a burnt reside embossing, by Miguel Aragón. Behind it is an untitled screenprint by Adrienne Butler. I’m really proud that last year I’ve was asked to loan out Debra Broz’s “Twin Persians” (found ceramic, 2013) for a solo she had at the Houston Museum of Craft. The talavera ceramic pieces I got in Cholula, Mexico, where my mother-in-law lives.
I’ve always been a very visually-responsive person; I react the most viscerally to things I see on a fundamental level. I get excited by line, form, color. Not just in art or architecture, but in ordinary objects or in a landscape glimpsed out of car window.
Writing about something visual, using language to describe something that’s language-less is an enormous challenge. Besides my own visual inclinations, I’ve always thought I write about art because it’s the most difficult topic to write about.
TV: Your time at the Statesman recently ended — a great shock to the community, but perhaps not to you or others who watch the newspaper industry. Why do you think print dailies and major newspapers are cutting back, if not completely shutting down?
JCvR: It’s not news that newspapers — and print media in general — have been downsizing and altogether disappearing for more than a decade. And every consumer of news should be paying attention to that and be concerned about it too.
The business model for newspapers changed dramatically and instantaneously with the rise of the internet. And as its traditional revenue sources diminished, changed or disappeared, so is a newspaper forced to shrink, change, or in the worst scenario, disappear.
People forget that in its roughly 200-year history, a newspaper was never free. If you wanted to read a paper, you had to buy it. It’s been barely 20 years since most newspapers launched websites and started putting their content out for free. Our memory-less internet culture dis-remembers that. Now, people feel entitled to free journalism.
Of course beyond subscriptions, advertising accounts for much of any newspaper’s revenue. But internet advertising is pennies on the dollar compared to what print advertising traditionally fetched. Likewise other digital advances cut into a paper’s business model. Online listing sites like Craigslist effectively killed classified advertising, a revenue stream that for many newspapers accounted for one-third of ad revenue.
Professional journalism, well-edited writing intended for a wide and non-specialized audience, and ethical journalism that maintains its independence — that costs money.
“Pattern Portrait (Green),” print on metal, 2014, Laurie Frick. The print is completely waterproof, that’s why it’s in my bathroom!
From my years-long, wide-angle perspective of the Austin arts community and its news consumption habits over the years, the arts community might look at its own role in the media ecosystem. Media industry changes notwithstanding, media consumption — readership habits — changed, grew more niche oriented.
Did you benefit from professional arts journalism that spreads arts news widely to a general audience? How do you engage with and support arts media? Do you subscribe, online or in print? Do you read local coverage beyond the arts or beyond that one faction of the arts you are involved with?
TV: In this era of fake news, can you see things changing if publications are cutting back staff (fact checkers among many other positions)? On a baseline level, less journalists in city council meetings means less watchfulness added to a low-engagement community sounds dangerous.
JCvR: Yeah, both “fake news” and “alternative facts” are truly Orwellian.
But this can be moment to activate and change. Media organizations can’t do it in a vacuum nor are they the only responsible parties.
The rise of “fake news” is just part of the larger clarion call for everyone to pay attention and get involved right now — cut the complacency, leave the social media echo-chambers, nix the navel-gazing.
People have to seek out good journalism and engage with it, read it critically and read across all topics. And most importantly they have to financially support it.
There’s some positive news about news: Big national newspapers like The New York Times and the Washington Post saw subscriptions climb pre- and post-election. Digital ad revenue at both grew too. And the Post is now adding 60 reporters.
I constantly re-arrange the art and objects I have. The green glass platter is vintage 1930s Czech glassware we got in Prague on our honeymoon. The wood “flowers” are by my husband, Aldo Valdés Böhm. The pair of paintings are by Stella Alesi and the blue/brown sugar bowl I bought at an antique store in Lockhart. Aldo also built the cherrywood cabinet.
TV: I didn’t know that you got your masters in creative writing. How did that inform your journalistic writing about the arts?
JCvR: Possibly my creative writing background gave me a sense of having no fear in experimenting, even though the parameters of journalistic writing don’t allow for huge experimentation.
Short stories have always been my preferred creative form of writing. I love the compressed nature of a short story. I think it’s more of a challenge to write short. So in terms of being inclined to short form writing, I was already primed for newspaper writing which even when long, is actually quite short.
But critical writing, critical and analytical thinking about a range of topics — those are the skills a thorough liberal arts education gave me and which I still leverage and not just in writing.
“Discard Pile 17,” acrylic on board, 2013. Jason Webb. My husband gifted me this painting for my birthday, giving me my choice from Jason’s 2013 solo show at Grayduck Gallery.
TV: Any advice for young writers (of fiction and nonfiction)?
JCvR: Each writer’s personal writing discipline — the business of just sitting down and writing — is something she has to come up with on her own through experimentation.
My essential advice to young writers is to read. Read like crazy. Read what you want to write; if you want to write cultural criticism, real cultural criticism. Long-form nonfiction? Then read that.
Read critically. Read with a pencil in your hand, underline phrases or sentences you like, put a checkmark by an elegant paragraph. Then go back and take a deeper look at what you marked up. Or jot down something, even just a brief observation, about what you read.
TV: You’ve been witness to the art community (heck, Austin) for longer than most. How do you view our growth, our ups and downs, and where were are now?
JCvR: I’m not that old (54)! But yes, I have been in Austin 30 years now. And my stint at the Statesman did put me in the catbird seat, as it were.
I moved here on a lark to go to graduate school not intending to stay for more than a few years afterwards. If Austin hadn’t grown as a city and if its cultural community hadn’t expanded, blossomed, deepened and grown more sophisticated, I never would have stayed.
The city’s cultural scene expanded as major arts institutions grew into actually recognizable major institutions. And the scene deepened through artist initiatives: the indie galleries and exhibit spaces, the studio tours and happenings, the dialogue progenitors like Conflict of Interest. And artist contributions have brought sophistication too — worldliness doesn’t only come from major institutions.
It’s worrisome now to see indie creative efforts struggle against Austin’s rising cost of being. Only future hindsight will reveal whether or not we’re at some kind of tipping point in Austin’s creative community right now and where that point might tip.
TV: What’s next for you?
JCvR: Right now I’m taking just a bit of a break. I’m pretty exhausted. The last handful of years have been enormously stressful in ways I wasn’t aware until I left the newsroom.
I’m staying open and casting my net wide when it comes to looking for my next position. Perhaps that’ll be a full-time bylined writing job, perhaps not. Maybe I’ll stay in Austin, maybe not. Like I said, I’m staying open.
In the meantime, I’m reading a lot, beginning some personal writing projects and taking my dog for epic, adventurous walks.
Untitled burnt wood drawings by Erick Michaud, from the artist’s 2009 solo show at Art Palace when it was still in Austin.
TV: …and what are you reading????
JCvR: I have a terrible habit of juggling several books in different genres at the same time, sliding between fiction, non-fiction, poetry as well as a good deal of journalism. I’ve been a New Yorker subscriber for decades and pour over every issue when it arrives, disrupting whatever discipline I pretend to have.
Books that are right now in my mix include Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art, a biography by Nancy Princenthal (Thames & Hudson), which is really the first full-length, thorough biography of Martin.
Also Witold Rybczynski’s Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas About Culture (Scribner). I’ve always admired Rybczynski’s ability to write about big ideas and complex concepts in a clear, elegant manner for a non-insider audience.
I’ve also just started The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter (Bloomsbury) a novel by Austin author John Pipkin which has received notable critical attention. A fictional story of an 18th century woman astronomer, it’s stylistically pretty brilliant — lyrical and brimming with arresting images.
What piqued my interest is that Pipkin used the Ransom Center’s Herschel family papers and in particular dug into the life of Caroline Lucretia Herschel (1750–1848). Caroline was the sister of Sir William Herschel, discoverer of the planet Uranus. Against enormous odds Caroline became a noted astronomer in her own right.
I’m so much a visual person I suppose I live my life through objects and images. Every spot offers itself up as a blank on which to re-arrange the things I acquire. I thrill at merely their form, their visual presence. But mostly I relish their stories.
My desk at home, from left to right: My parents were very design savvy and for our family dinnerware we had this Dansk brown mid-century flameware. My brother Gregg was in Copenhagen recently and got me these salt-and-pepper shakers at a second store near the Designmuseum Denmark (after he texted me myriad images from his visit there). How sweet.
The trio of hand carved limestone packing peanuts I bought from Mark Schatz, leftover from an installation he did after he was blown out of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina and lost everything.
Next, is a miniature abstract metal sculpture. It looks like it should be monumental, doesn’t it? I bought it from a curious man who had a cart full of mini sculpture, vending outside the Museu Brasileiro de Escultrua in São Paulo, Brazil. Thee museum’s radical modernist architecture proved provocative. So did the mini sculpture vendor whose name I unfortunately never got.
Giving the lineup some height is one of Aldo’s many homages to Brancusi. Mini-homages. He’s riffed on Brancusi in multiple ways.
Leaning up against the Brancusi homage is W. Tucker’s hand-illustrated thank-you note he wrote to me after I wrote profile of him during his rather fabulous show at Texas State University Galleries.
Finally, the weird turquoise vintage iron: I bought that in a junk shop in Parras de le Fuente, Coahulia, Mexico. My husband and I were one of our many road trips through northern Mexico. I just love the iron’s shape, it’s decoration and embellishment — proof that we can’t help adorning even the quotidian object with aesthetic flair. The turquoise paint had to be added later after such a hot coal-filled iron was functional. Who did that and when — who made it decorative after it was functional? I’ll never know. And I love it.
Thao Votang is co-editor of Conflict of Interest, a writer, and co-founder of Tiny Park. She has pitched stories to van Ryzin over the years on behalf of Tiny Park, Visual Arts Center, and Department of Art and Art History.