Play the Game, and Other Lessons from Autumn Gomez
Autumn Gomez, (BFA ’10) is looking to make it big with her jewelry business. One of four artists chosen to collaborate with the clothing giant Paul Frank in August 2013, Autumn’s The Soft Museum has just taken a leap forward in visibility. The collaboration came as the result of Paul Frank making amend after it publicized an “Indian” themed company party where attendees could drink “fire water” and pose in headdresses. The blogosphere called foul, led by prominent Native blogs Beyond Buckskin and Native Appropriations. Rather than hastening to cover its tracks, Paul Frank decided to make things right and work with Native artists in a special line of clothing and accessories.
Autumn (Taos/Comanche) and Nico Salazar, business partner and IAIA student, are busy with the orders and traffic from their collaboration, which will go on sale online and at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in August. Autumn and Nico founded The Soft Museum in 2010, and the jewelry is a look all its own. Made out of plastic, “jewel” beads are laid out on a grid then ironed into place. The designs are everything from feather-shaped earrings to plastic “swag” chains to pageant-style crowns. After the Paul Frank announcement in June, Autumn took a few minutes to talk about her time at IAIA, what inspires her, and how to make it as an artist “in the game.”
Why did you start The Soft Museum?
We started asking, “How are we going to become full time artists?” We wanted to have jewelry and accessories that no one else had. More and more people liked it and we realized that the color palette available to us was so huge. We’re really inspired by video game art—video game backgrounds are amazing to me.
I’ve always been the kind of person who doesn’t want to have what everybody else has. I like to cut things up and make it my own. I like to cut shirts up, make my own jewelry. When we saw the capability that these beads had we just went with it.
How did it grow?
Beyond Buckskin had a lot to do with widening our audience. A lot of people saw that we produced plastic jewelry and assumed that was easily manufactured, when really a smallish piece cat takes at least an hour. Everything’s handmade and Beyond Buckskin blogger Jessica Metcalfe saw that, appreciated it and saw that we’re going for more than hip hop “swag” chains—we were trying to extend our reach into high fashion.
What are you trying to say differently than a hip hop “swag” chain?
For example our line of crowns. That’s not something just anybody would wear out to the club or to dinner. It’s a statement piece. It’s mashing together street wear and couture.
Who is your audience?
A lot of people who are into electronic music, hip hop, a lot of DJs and rapper type of people as well as fashion people, artists, models. I think a lot of powwow people like our work, which is exciting to me because there’s nothing better than neon and flashiness! It’s mainly younger people, but really people of all ages, shapes, colors, sizes—there’s all kinds of people who appreciate what we have to offer.
This is Santa Fe, Indian Market country, so does it figure into that conversation or is it totally outside of that?
I grew up here in Santa Fe and in the realm of the art world and of course I have deep respect for all our fellow artists. The Soft Museum is made of me and Nick first. Me with my tribal heritage and Nick who’s straight up northern New Mexican from Pecos, so he has Hispanic roots, and then Max Sanders, our third designer, is half black and half white. To me, it’s a multicultural fantasy. It’s more about perspective than persona. It’s more about how we see things and what we want to put into the world than who we are.
Identity is very important especially now the world’s becoming globalized and assimilated, but The Soft Museum is, is…mutants from the future living in the sewers and they’re putting out this weird future-jewelry. Ha ha! I don’t know how else to explain it. It’s definitely about having an old perspective blended with our new world.
How does IAIA figure into the Soft Museum story?
Without the IAIA business program we wouldn’t be where we are. Things started getting interesting right when Nick was taking the marketing class at IAIA with Jennifer Coots. We learned so much through that class in one semester. Having those marketing assignments at the same time we were trying to making our business in real life was totally, totally beneficial.
I was a creative writing major at IAIA (Autumn was the recipient of the prestigious Truman Capote Scholarship, including a Merit and the American Indian College Fund scholarships). Skills I learned from critique have helped me, like knowing what I’m putting out to a wider audience. With the help of those IAIA classes, now I know how to critique myself. I have the basic skills that you learn being in a room with other artists—knowing how to talk about your work, knowing how to talk about other people’s work.
Knowing about the publishing world and knowing about how people in academia act and knowing how people in the literary and art world think and function—that definitely helps. I would have to say I’m not into going to literary conferences, although it was cool when I did, because now I know what those people are like and that gives me an advantage, too. Mainly it’s knowing how to do business with other people; knowing how to bring yourself up in a non-threatening way. I don’t want to say schmooze, but…it seems very simple and logistical. But at that end of the day that’s when the business gets done.
What are your influences?
My number one influence is nature. I don’t say that in a cheesy way! I like to go sit out in the desert by myself sometimes—it’s true! There’s a delicate balance between technology and nature right now—you’re either immersed in one or the other. As a whole our art really reflects that.
I’m really into design. I love color, gradient and form, all that kind of nerdy design stuff. I really like to research composition. I’m disgustingly obsessed with that stuff. I look at other people’s art, photographs, and I read a lot, to try to pick up information about the world. Another huge influence is music, especially electronic music.
What’s your current playlist?
I really like this rapper called Rittz. He’s all about the struggle to make it to the top. It’s like starving-artist-rap, really cheesy but I like it. I grew up in a very hip hop and electronic scene. I really love house music and love to dance. See, I came from a powwow family, and we just got together and danced all night and wore fancy clothes! Whenever I can do that, in any sense I love it.
Are you trying to say something that hasn’t been said before in Native art?
I see myself having close relationships with lots of Native artists, but I don’t feel like I fall into that…Well, let’s just say this: if you want to apply for a SWAIA booth you can’t use plastic. Plastic is not a traditional material.
I grew up very close to all my family in Taos and in Oklahoma, but I never lived in either place. I always lived here in Santa Fe. Through living here I have a Chicano family, I have a family from Mexico, too—my friends and the people I see on a daily basis. I went to Santa Fe Prep for high school so I was exposed to this crazy Santa Fe eastside lifestyle. I’ve never felt comfortable in defining myself in any one way. I see the world as a whole.
So the traditional artwork in Taos or Comanche is not really yours?
I don’t want to create a traditional Comanche beadwork bag and sell it as such. It’s not who I am. I feel like I don’t have the right to say, “This is Taos Pueblo micaceous pottery. I didn’t grow up there, but hey, here it is!” I don’t have the right. I have a place in those communities and people know me there and they respect me for who I am. I just need to do my own thing.
I’d like to encourage younger people to not be afraid, to experiment. Be creative, push the limit. I just wanted to create something that wasn’t there before.
Any advice for up and coming artists?
Don’t be afraid to take business classes. Don’t be afraid to create a market for yourself. And yes, it seems yucky. It seems like as an artist that’s the last thing you’d want to be doing. But that’s just how it is. If you want to be seen and have your work heard, you have to figure out a way to market yourself—there’s no other way. The more creativity you put into it, the more successful you’ll become.
You find that creativity rewards you? Some artists find their work isn’t marketable.
That’s the thing: we’ve made all of this ourselves. I could’ve gone to SWAIA and been like, “Here’s some plastic jewelry!” and they would’ve told me: “No.” So I had to do it myself: “Hi, I’m Autumn. I have this plastic jewelry that I’m already wearing.”
At the end of the day my goal is to live a life funded by my art. Obviously it’s not an easy living. But the hope is to one day have a house, settle down, have a family, and make money with my art. Unfortunately, it is all about how you make your money. You can have a glorious job, then come home and pound away at night, not show anybody your work and maybe when you’re dead somebody will discover all your great work. But I’ve been setting up my whole life to do this. I’ve always wanted to be an artist. And when I figured out I had to make money—I couldn’t live forever off the candy store—well, you play the game. That’s just how the human world is now.
That was confusing to me. I was coming from summers with my grandparents where things were simple—if you want a fire, all you have to do is chop wood! But in this social construct, that’s not how things are at all. There is a game to be played and if I have to play it, I’m going to do it my own way. It’s sad because deep down I’m an artist, too! I just want to run around in the field, draw pretty things, wear pretty things in my hair—oh, my gosh! But you have to be ruthless.
It’s not like I’m trying to hurt anybody or even elbow somebody as I’m going in for a basket. It’s more like, there’s a game to be played. I’m going to play it and do my best. I’m going to go hard. I’m going to train for this, research, work—and there are results. I feel like I should be working harder! Get in there and don’t be afraid of what you have to offer. That’s my advice for the young and the old.