In His Jeans
by Sara Sobota
Jim Arendt is the Conway artist who transformed a pair of jeans into a cash jackpot this past May. The Coastal Carolina University art gallery director won the top prize—$50,000—at the inaugural Artfields, a Lake City event that drew nearly 800 submissions and national recognition for its generous purse. While Arendt enjoyed both the honor and the financial benefits of the award, he continues to pursue his creative vision with the same philosophy as ever: art is work, and work is art.
Part of the aesthetic appeal of Arendt’s prize-winning work, Jamie, is its unique substance. Arendt has been working with denim for about three years and has used it to create more than 15 textile images. Neither the medium nor the subject matter is arbitrary, however; both are central to Arendt’s artistic message.
Jamie, cut denim, 96″ x 150″
“Denim is tough; it’s durable,” Arendt says. For a man who grew up in Flint, Michigan, denim represents the hard work involved in the blue-collar industries of farming and automaking. It’s a material whose roots are often overlooked.
“We wear it, but we don’t even see it,” explains Arendt. “It’s an item that has become so universal that it doesn’t have meaning. But what meaning is it? It’s the land, it’s the people who wear it, it’s the cotton and the indigo and the rivets and the rugged fabric that withstands manual labor in the field, in the factory, in the plant.”
And so Arendt’s job was to transform that tangible piece of manual labor into art. It took about three months “to figure out how to work with it,” Arendt says. What to make of it? Arendt considers the results family members. “Each of my figures is a blood relation, or close enough. They’re not portraits, but how I perceive them. I try to capture them as their character in the family.”
Arendt wasn’t always caught up in the idea of unique material for his art work. He originally focused on the more traditional media of oil painting and drawing. “I had very academic training,” Arendt explains, which includes a BFA from the Kendall College of Art and Design and a MFA from the University of South Carolina. But then, Arendt explains, “there was a reframing of what I was doing. I started thinking through materials and what they mean. I began to see my work as a content delivery system.” Other materials that may work their way into his artistic realm include Bic pens, motor oil and cast concrete.
Arendt’s emphasis on labor also extends to his position as director of the Rebecca Randall Bryan Gallery at CCU, where his daily pursuits include teaching, researching and curating. He serves as a mentor and career guide to senior art majors who take his class, The Artist as Professional, where he teaches that making a living in the world of art is possible with hard work. “College teaches students how to think, it teaches them technical skills,” Arendt says, “but it doesn’t teach them how to practice. I balance the dreamy, ethereal nature of the field with pragmatism—they’re essentially entrepreneurs, so I teach them entrepreneurial business skills. ” Arendt introduces students to various forms of social media and news feeds to promote their work and teaches them “tricks”—how to apply for shows, land a residency, create a press kit and find non-commercial gallery space. “There’s no road map to this career,” Arendt says. “I hand them a machete.”
Colleague Chris Todd, a lecturer in the CCU art department, says Arendt’s approach to teaching and art is inspirational to his students. “He has just a wealth of knowledge and skills to share, and he absolutely loves to share new artists and new ideas. He gets really excited with the students about their work. It’s a good mix of pressure and optimism that works well to motivate them; it’s exciting to watch.”
And the motivation is reciprocal. “Teaching helps me work through my ideas,” Arendt explains. After coming home and spending a couple of hours with his wife, artist Yvette Cummings, and daughters Harper, 6, and Ansley, 3, he’s ready to attack the denim that hangs in his garage.
Winning the Artfields competition was a big moment for Arendt, but it’s by no means his only professional recognition. He held a solo exhibition this summer at the Sumter Gallery of Art and was selected to participate in group exhibitions at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts and the Museum Rijswijk in the Netherlands this year.
As for fame, Arendt is less than eager for the spotlight. “I’m a Midwesterner,” he says, “it’s not easy to take recognition. I get embarrassed.” More important to him than accolades is the work that his pieces can do. “I want art to change things,” he says. “I want it to touch someone’s life.”