First, I’d love to know a bit about you! Who and what is Bubblegum & Whiskey? Where did the inspiration for the name come from?
We are Kevin Mercer and Sarah E. Swist. We are a duo currently living and working in southern Texas. We each make our own work but formed Bubblegum & Whiskey as a collaborative project in 2015.
The moniker “Bubblegum & Whiskey” was initially a fun and intriguing phrase. One of us is more nostalgic, playful, and lighthearted while the other is a bit darker; a natural worrier. The longer you sit with the words, the more you can see the contradictions working their way to the surface. To us, it has become a metaphorical way of describing how people hold themselves, things we observe in our communities, or may remember from childhood. We started noticing that a veneer of nostalgia can just barely cover a more depressed reality. It’s in the rural landscapes we see, products we use, and in the stories told by our elders. It becomes applicable in many situations and it’s a feeling that is relatable. Our work examines these visual and emotional highs and lows we observe now and recall from the past.
I’m interested in your practice (and project) devoted to ideas around contemporary craft — both the “high” and the “low.” What first interested you in this?
Our interest in contemporary craft comes from the traditions and practices passed down by our families. We come from quilters and carpenters who knew the value of building with one’s own hands and teaching future generations these skills. It is important for us to continue working with these methods so that we may preserve the value of the handmade.
Though we appreciate the precision and sophistication of high craft, we find the particular aesthetic that accompanies self-taught, DIY practices to be equally attractive and supremely honest. We acknowledge the beauty in a mended fence or a homemade doghouse.
Is there a particular type of work that you’re interested in doing personally? Or, in other words, favorite materials you use?
We both studied drawing and painting together and earned a BFA from Western Illinois University an MFA from Penn State University.
In the last few years, we’ve had the opportunity to explore other materials. Kevin does more of the woodworking and Sarah does more sewing and embroidery. We try to teach each other what we know and trade secrets. We inherited a few woodshop tools and sewing supplies. It would be a shame to let them go to waste. As much as we can, we honor the things our family members worked hard for and did so well. We try to utilize the tools that our great-grandfather used and our grandpa had in his shop. We like to use fabric scraps from our grandma’s childhood dress. We stitch on the sewing machine that we grew up listening to in the other room.
Where do you find most of your materials? Do you collaborate with other artists and makers often?
Like many artists, we’re big savers. We hold onto things we think we might need, even when we don’t know what to do with them yet. We go to old thrift stores and antique shops along the side of the road and will walk out with new treasure every time, even if it’s teeny tiny treasure. It’s comforting to be surrounded by things that prompt a specific memory. We would rather fix something old than buy something brand new whenever possible.
We are still shaping Bubblegum & Whiskey and are trying to keep our focus. It’s new and so much catches our eyes; we want to try it all. At this point, our collaboration with other makers hasn’t been a formal affair. We talk regularly with family members who have a craft of their own and try to learn from them. We love being able to exchange ideas through Instagram. So many makers share their amazing work online and it’s so easy to spend hours scrolling through pictures. In the future, we see a lot of opportunity to use Bubblegum & Whiskey to bring people together.
You also seem very interested in the idea of home. Can you tell me a bit more about that, as well as your interest in the rural emphasis of your project? What drew you to that specifically?
The home functions in so many ways, that we can’t help be interested in discussing it visually. The home is defined geographically and experientially through its physical boundaries and the creation of memories. We use these characteristics in our work largely because our sense of home has evolved so greatly over the last several years; we’ve been rootless for a while. Our domestic space has come to be defined by the objects with which we populate it: hand-pieced quilts, wooden bowls, antique tools, and of course, our own work. After seeing how these objects interact with one another in a physical space, we began pushing the aesthetic relationships further. Paint, fabric, wood, and found objects all co-mingle in yard sale fashion. That’s what our home looks like.
We’ve spent a lot of time on long cross-country drives observing the country over thousands of miles. The presentation of objects through roadside flea markets has become a very influential format. We employ many of the same sales techniques and display methods, albeit in a playful, tongue-in-cheek way. We embrace hand-painted signage and quirky pricing. We keep our objects knick-knack and trinket sized. While these are fun ways to keep us interested in the work, they reflect a major way in which people interact with artwork, heirlooms, and visual culture in rural communities.
Do you typically tag-team on projects, or do you each have a specific style? What do you find to be the most rewarding or exciting aspect of doing what you do?
Working together has been a new process. We’ve known each other for 10 years and worked very closely alongside each other. This project has been an exercise in communication and teamwork to complete a common goal. As a couple, with our studio in our home, we are surrounded by our work and choices constantly. We wiggle our way through ideas, sometimes flawlessly and occasionally with compromises. If we share the work, we share the mistakes, and we share the success.
It’s rewarding to work with your partner. It’s exciting to see things become art objects and to know you made something with your own hands. That feeling never gets old. Kevin is an “always be knolling” guy. Sarah is more spontaneous and messy. We try to take turns working on each piece, passing it back and forth. We each take care of the logistics, writing, and social media because we like to be involved from start to finish.
Perhaps the greatest reward for this collaboration has been the positive reception of the work by both our peers and our family. It is important to us that the work be well received among both the artistically trained and untrained. We believe that for the artwork to be functioning correctly, there must be something of value for everyone. It is important to us that the work can be obtained by anyone so we often donate pieces or sell them at a low cost. For us to make enough money to purchase more art supplies and for someone to experience owning a piece of artwork is a win-win.
What is the most challenging or difficult thing that you’ve encountered, either as individual artists, along the way with this project? How have you remedied–or tried to remedy that?
We have each worked many, many jobs that aren’t even remotely art-related to pay rent and buy groceries. We have spent years in customer service, retail, maintenance, landscaping, construction, and hospitality. It isn’t always fun. It’s not what we dreamed of doing along the way. It can be truly hard to find time, money, and space to create work. Every artist struggles with some combination of these issues. Sometimes we have to do things we don’t love in order to get to somewhere we want to be.
It has felt stagnant at times but everything is in motion. Time is creeping away and we want to make the most of it. Service industry jobs kept us on our feet more than a few times and we are grateful. To remain optimistic, to be kind, and to continue to work hard in each situation requires dedication. It’s about believing in your own ability to make things happen and count your successes each day.
What is the best advice you’ve received?
We don’t need to live anywhere in particular to be artists. Geography doesn’t matter. We don’t have to be in New York or Los Angeles. We can visit or can ship work and we’re online. Our practice thrives in rural areas and we enjoy small towns, so being in a big city would ultimately be detrimental. We respond strongly to our surroundings and like wide open spaces where we can see the earth. We like to hear from the neighbors, run into folks at the grocery store, and visit family. Our folds into our daily life and we wouldn’t want it any other way. Be yourself and make work about that. Do you have any upcoming exhibitions or projects you’re currently developing?
As the project launched over the last few months, we’ve sent pieces to various galleries for juried shows. We’re currently putting together an exhibition proposal to send to venues as opportunities arise. We hope to develop workshops where we can share our craft with new friends and other artists. We want to continue to learn new things and meet new people.
One of our dreams is to start a non-profit artist residency in a small rural town that revitalizes old homes in exchange for studio space, use of equipment, and time. It is an idea that would utilize all of our skills and help other emerging artists and members of the community at the same time. We’ll get there. In the meantime, we keep making plans and making work.
Anything else you would like to add?
Thank you for asking such thoughtful questions and helping us share Bubblegum & Whiskey with the world!
Find more at www.BubblegumAndWhiskey.com! // @BubblegumAndWhiskey
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