Spotlight: WIP Founder Sarah Roberts

Artists Helping Artists

Written by Cory Healy
Photographs by Rick Perez

New York is a city full of dreamers and people determined to strike it big, especially in the artist community—which is massive here. From my experience, it’s all about putting in the long hours of work, hustling, and being patient with your goals. So many people shoot for it and burn out roughing it alone, and it can be super-hard to go it without taking risks and getting some help along the way.

One such individual, who I had the pleasure of interviewing today, cultivated a beautiful thing out of that spirit. Work In Progress, “WIP” for short, is a community-oriented artist showcase designed to help artists show where they are, discuss where they want to be, and gain valuable feedback in a casual, laidback setting. In just under a year, Sarah Roberts has seen it develop from just a small gathering of friends, to a whole movement that’s getting bigger and bigger each month; their one-year anniversary takes place this Saturday, August 20.

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She met me at Skytown Cafe in Bushwick for a brief chat on how she started and where she wants to take “WIP” for the benefit of all artists, which is transcribed below:

Can you state your name, who you are, and what your relationship to “WIP” is?

S: My name is Sarah Roberts, and I’m the director and founder of “WIP”, which is short for Work in Progress.

And how did you come up with the idea?

S: It’s funny: the idea actually came up a year ago at a Fourth of July rooftop party. I was wasted with my good buddy Rick Perez, who’s a fellow photographer; him and I have always been connected on our work. We were talking about how it’s difficult, especially as a photographer, to know if you’re going in the right direction with your work, and that it’s helpful to gain perspective by showing it to someone else. So we were talking about ‘well what if we get together doing something like we are now—partying on a rooftop—and instead of just partying, let’s show our work?’ Let’s connect this camaraderie that we already have with the talented things we’re doing because we know so many talented people. We started talking about how we know writers and actors and comedians and dancers. We know all these amazing people who are struggling to find what it is that drives them to make it something to live off of. So, a month later, I found a space in this café in Bed-Stuy, and I held a small event there and it’s grown ever since.

C: I like how you use the word ‘camaraderie’ because I think it’s so important to remind ourselves that, especially in NYC, we’re all in this together. I think there’s a stigma of a competition here. It feels like I have to be aggressive and do it all on my own. Showcasing that vulnerable side of an artist looking for feedback sort of flies in the face of that competitive nature. Have you been able to see a transformation from one showcase to another by a particular artist that came through “WIP”, getting that feedback?

S: Oh most certainly! There’s a very talented artist, who’s actually going to be presenting at the one-year anniversary named Chris Xydas. I remember he presented at one of the early “WIP” shows before it got big. He does these incredible progress videos as he’s drawing, and as he’s drawing it, he does these hypnotic ink line drawings. When he started he only did pen work, didn’t have any color involved. It was simplistic in the whole design but you could see the talent there. He presented at multiple “WIPs”, and each time he showed his work, you could see the progression, and you could see how the feedback helped the work evolve. People would say “well what if you added color? What if you did this? Etc.” Once he started adding color, his work just exponentially improved. Even in terms of his personal social media, when I first met him, his page only had a couple hundred people. He  was only getting 12-something likes; now he’s up to 80-something likes on average. His reach is growing, and I wouldn’t directly attribute that to “WIP” because he has his own talent, and he’s doing his own work; I think that “WIP” is that encouragement you need in order to keep working.

C: Yeah!

S: It’s a facilitation. Our goal is to help facilitate these artists that already have these things and help recognize what their strengths are, and help them progress. So it’s been really amazing to see him evolve and his work become so good.

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C: From the “WIPs” I’ve gone to, it’s not like a dissertation or like a classroom where people present and are nervous about showcasing to people who judge them. It’s very informal and relaxed by nature. Can you speak a little to how you cultivate that atmosphere to provide that comfort and space for artists? How do you see to that?

S: That’s actually been at the forefront of my consciousness about “WIP“. That’s the heart of it, giving people comfort in their vulnerability—especially taking it from an internal conception, bringing it out and showing people. It’s very intimate, so I’ve always treated that aspect delicately.

The atmosphere has been a work in progress of itself. It started very open. Before we did our Q&A’s and critiques, people would just talk about their stuff. Then we tried a really formal Q&A and then I realized that, although that helps the artist, it didn’t help the people spectating and the people asking the questions—it became that sort of classroom feel.

We tried a couple different platforms but now we’ve come to this one where we’re keeping an open dialogue. Debbie Domitrovich, who’s a very good friend of mine, is our chief curator at “WIP”. And so, what’s really helped the atmosphere is that Debbie meets with every artist prior to the show, and she talks to them about their work, and she looks at their studio and their space. That’s really helped because now there’s a face to what this event is. Debbie is so personable and very knowledgeable about art, so she’s able to help artists learn relations to other successful artists like “oh this reminds me of this person,” and she also helps curate portfolios so there’s a guided sort of view of their work. No one’s ever going in there blind, whereas in school you’re sort of left to your own devices. You have to pick apart what you’re going to present. Sometimes you need that person to see what’s inside you’re work, because you’re a photographer for a reason or you’re a painter for a reason; you’re not necessarily a curator. I feel like that really helps presenters better speak about their work, and it just becomes a conversation, as opposed to critique. So through that conversation, like with a friend, people tend to learn more about themselves and about their work.

C: At what point did you realize, since starting “WIP”, that it was getting big? You’ve advanced in so many ways because now you have to sign up for a waitlist due to how many people are coming in and clamoring to be in the showcases each and every month.

S: It literally happened overnight! The very first one was last year in August. It was shown two times in a café. People just kept coming up to me after the show, saying “this was really fun! Are you going to keep doing it?” So I was like, ok, I guess I’ll keep doing it.

Rick helped me reach out to the 20-something project, which got me connected to the Pow Wow, which is a co-working space in Bed-Stuy ran by Dora Martin. And so we were showing there, we were having about 20-30 people on average, and people again started asking “do you need any help with this? I always see you running around trying to do all these things, I’d love to help.” So I just had an influx of volunteers. And once people started asking about volunteering around Novermber, I was like “ok, people are wanting to get involved.” So I took a break in December, didn’t do a show, and met with all these people who asked to volunteer, which is my team now.

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C: Oh nice! So they’ve been on-board ever since the start of this year?

S: We took December off, really had discussions like “why do you want to volunteer, what do you see in this?” I was taking people’s personal ambitions and putting them in, and that’s what made it grow. “WIP” grow. Debbie is an art history major. Her goal is to be a gallery curator, so I was like “oh you can do this here!” I have two Assistant Directors now, Tanisha Parker and Christina Gomes. And then Aaron Wade, he’s a very talented artist.

January was our first big one; we had no clue what was going to happen. It was the first time we reached out to people we didn’t know, and we put ads out on Facebook; we had a huge response from just artists. We had no structure, no idea what we were doing. Aaron did these amazing hand-printed flyers and started passing them out to people and they got intrigued by that. For our very first show in January we had 70 people show up. It was huge, there were people outside the door.

C: Beyond capacity, right?

S: It was beyond capacity! Remember that big blizzard that happened? It was originally scheduled for that day. I had people who were messaging us saying they were still trying to make it out! I had to bump the event to next week and even still we had all of these people show up. Since then, it’s just been email after phone call, and we learned so much from the mistakes that we made. I think that big rush of people made us realize ‘we have something, so let’s figure out what that is.’ Now we have a full-fledged team and sponsorships.

C: Congrats on the sponsorships! You touched a little bit on mistakes you made getting “WIP” to where it is now. You gotta break a few eggs to make an omelette. What were some of the setbacks that you had to deal with to get where you are now?

S: A lot of it was communication between us, the artists, and what the event was for. Before, it was a simple get-together-and-show-stuff but we realized that it needed more focus in order to be more beneficial to people that are outside of our immediate circle—struggling professional artists who are looking for a true place to gain direction. That’s our purpose, so we needed to do that better. So on January 1 it was just a clusterfuck, like, the Q&A was terrible; I lead it, but also was hosting and doing all these things, and also doing the event photography.

C: You were doing everything!

S: That’s not beneficial, you know. It sounds like “woah, that’s so impressive,” but everything kinda fell to shit because of it. So I learned first that there needs to be a focus, so we built a team, delegated roles and held team meetings. We came up with the submission form, which I think has been hands-down the biggest improvement that we’ve made. We have a website. People can visit our website to get a better sense of what the event is. But then also, if you’re an artist that’s interested in becoming a part of this, you can submit on this website. There’s a questionnaire on there that sort of helps give focus to us and them. Like how can we help you, what is this experience meant to be for you? And so, in that way we can curate it and make it something that helps, and also delegating and having a team. That was everything

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C: I understand now that ya’ll are sponsored by Braven Brewery! How did you get that to happen?
S: Those guys are the coolest. Eric and Marshall own this; they’re actually just as new as we are, which I didn’t get that sense at all because they’re very professional and put together. They have a very strong brand. How we got connected to them was through Aaron. Aaron’s friends with the screen printer that prints work for them—I believe his name is Jason. Him and Aaron were just talking and Aaron started talking about “WIP”. Because Jason’s another artist, Aaron suggested that he present. Jason asked what “WIP” is, and they talked more about it. I guess Aaron just sort of, matter-of-factly mentioned that we’re, like, looking for sponsorship. Jason was like “oh I print for these guys over at Braven Brewery company, they’re amazing,” he’s like “let me get you connected with them!” They’re the most transparent, most honest, awesome, amazing guys. Like, Day One they were asking us “what can we do?” They donated a bunch of cases of beer. And…

C: Really made everyone happy!

S: It seems small but it’s so important for the social aspect of the event.

C: It’s also like the local community helping out the local community!

S: Exactly.

C: It’s like a validation of the spirit of “WIP”, in a way, because you’ve come so far in less than a year. It’s so killer!

S: We have very similar views on community and supporting each other, so we have an agreement: we help bring them out and advertise their brand, and they help support us. It’s so awesome, cause those types of people are really rare. I really see the potential for working together and the camaraderie we were talking about earlier, realizing that, instead of me trying to one-up you or take something from you, let’s do something together! That’s what sort of happened with Braven, and that’s what inspired me to keep going—these people exist and are out there. These people are willing to work with artists and help that community grow. So yeah, we’re just looking for more people like that.

C: Your One-Year Anniversary of “WIP” is this coming Saturday (Aug 20). What are you excited about for the upcoming year? Do you have any ideas for further expansion and development from here on out?

S: We see “WIP” expanding our efforts to work with artists further in a sense of producing projects, like helping people create their visions.

C: Oh awesome!

S: Everyone in the team has a very unique, specialized talent. It just sort of naturally happened. It wasn’t like five photographers happened to get together. Marcello is a very talented musician, he’s also a very talented recording musician and producer. His goal, personally, is to work with musicians and record their music, so we’re gonna do those efforts through “WIP”. So for example, say you’re a band, and you’re looking for a sort-of whole, encompassing marketing, branding, or production. Joel Mitchell does our social media as well as our filmography, so we have someone who can do music videos for them, make scripts and also manage their social media. Then we have Marcello who can do production; I can do photography; Aaron can do art direction and design and do album covers and posters; we can also do marketing and PR.

C: Wow that is perfect.

S: So we basically have a production collective that naturally evolved from this. Now we’re trying to take it out of just the event, and doing that helps facilitates projects.

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C: Basically when “WIP” starts, there’s a sense of not knowing who’s going to present until you’re there. There’s so much diversity in the artistic community, and “WIP” attracts people from all sorts  of layers within that. You have everyone come into this collaborative safe-space, and you they realize that “hey we all have these different talents we can put together for the greater good.” And I think that’s the most inspiring thing about WIP, is that you’ve been able to foster that sense and find people who are energetic, excited to do that, and are willing to help the whole thing transform! Anythinh else you’d like to add before we wrap up?

S: So we’re doing a GoFundMe campaign to fund our 1 Year Anniversary, so that we can make it accessible to the community. Before, we charged tickets to pay for expenses, now we’re trying to reach out to the community to support the event.

C: Right.

S: GoFundMe.com/WIPoneyear. You  get a free tote bag, hand screen printed by our own Aaron Wade.

C: Oh shit!

S: Oh shit!

C: Sarah thank you so much for your time!

WIP x Java August 2016

Flyer by Aaron Wade

Author: blackonthecanvas

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