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Bill Cottman: Old Rhythms Making New Sense

When we set out on our State of the Artist Documentary Project, working with some of the McKnight Artist Fellows of the past 30 years, we immediately saw a chance to satisfy our own curiosity about Bill Cottman and his family. We’d met Bill, his wife Beverly, and their daughter Kenna last year when they performed an autobiographical piece under the name The Ways Ensemble at a Give & Take event we organized in North Minneapolis. We were immediately struck by their story.

Both Bill and Beverly had been making art for many years, but had done so while pursuing successful careers in science and engineering, as well as playing a role in the life of their community. Despite the fact that art was not at the center of their working lives, they’d raised a daughter who was also an artist, and managed to find the time to satisfy their own creative impulses. Their home, which they refer to as SALON1016: A periodic gathering of artistic and literary people, seemed to be a hub of art and creative culture.

Bill and Beverly told their story as part of their performance with Kenna that night. Shanai and I left unable to stop thinking and talking about the Cottman family. Part of our fascination was likely a bit of envy – they seemed to live in a world where art is a gift, something pursued for personal reasons, but that connects them to home, family, and community.

We wondered then: What kind of home does such a creative family build? How do they feel about being creative collaborators? What is it like to make artwork that is at once very personal, and part of a much larger story? What is that larger story? How did early choices to pursue other paths impact the trajectory of their lives? What can we all learn from their story?

Going into the process of making this piece with so much curiosity to satiate, it was likely folly to believe we might end up with a 5-10 minute video, our agreed-upon plan with McKnight. After spending time with Bill and his family, we realized how deeply intertwined his artistic process is with the process of making a meaningful life, and how difficult it was to condense this complexity into sound bites.

What we ended up creating with Bill is a much longer, much more contemplative piece than we’d expected, but one that befits a man who, as one admirer put it, “seems to stop time when he enters a room.” The piece touches on many themes: Bill coming to terms with his family as subject matter, finding practices that nurture his inner artist and engineer, his life-long relationship to the IDS tower and Minneapolis skyline as an example of how he sees and records his impressions of the world, his subtle ways of guiding his children and grandchildren toward their own interests. But one thing that struck us as especially important was Bill’s thoughts on the trade-offs that artists are sometimes asked to make:

In my time, I’ll say I yielded to the recommendations to take a practical path and pursue economic assets, letting the spiritual assets do what they must. Kenna’s very courageous in my mind, because she’s chosen differently. She’s chosen to have her art, her dance, be the center of what she is, and whatever economic assets come out of that she’s making herself satisfied with. To me that’s a demonstration of a kind of courage I didn’t have at that point in time, when I was making those decisions.

Shanai and I can certainly relate to this. In December of 2010, we both left successful careers (myself in architecture and Shanai as a public programmer and filmmaker working in museums) to focus on Works Progress full-time. We live with the ups and downs of that decision every day. We think there might be something universal in these questions, and would love to hear your thoughts:

What are some of the trade-offs you’ve made as an artist? Does an artist have to choose between economic and spiritual assets? What does courage in the pursuit of a meaningful life look like to you?

We hope you enjoy getting to know Bill Cottman through this piece, and we look forward to hearing your reactions to the ideas and themes that emerge.

Shanai Matteson and Colin Kloecker are Collaborative Directors of Works Progress, an artist-led public design studio. Works Progress creates collaborative art and design projects that inspire, inform and connect; catalyzing relationships across creative and cultural boundaries; and providing new platforms for public engagement. You can find them on Twitter at @works_progress.

Topic: Arts & Culture

February 2012