Rudy Shepherd: Artist & Educator
New York City
Assistant Professor, Penn State University School of Visual Arts
WFU Class of 1998
Double Major: Studio Art & Biology
Rudy Shepherd completed a double major in Studio Art and Biology in his time at Wake Forest. Since graduation, Rudy has established himself as both an artist in New York and an educator in Pennsylvania (which is no easy feat). We recently asked Rudy about his journey since WFU, and what it takes to find balance as a practicing artist.
DeacLink: What are you up to right now?
Rudy Shepherd: I am a professor at Penn State University’s School of Visual Arts. I’ve been here since 2010, and just got tenure in 2016.
DL: Congratulations! Walk us through your path to this position since leaving WFU.
RS: I majored in Biology at Wake, and spent my first year out of undergrad doing research in Winston-Salem at a dialysis center. During this time I was researching and applying to grad school programs, and using the facilities at Scales to compile a portfolio with the help of John Pickel.
I got into the MFA program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with a full scholarship for sculpture, and spent two amazing years there. While I was in Chicago I applied to residencies in New York and was accepted into the PS1 Contemporary Art Center’s artist in residence program. I was given studio space for a year in downtown Manhattan’s Clocktower Building. Across that year I had to piece together making work and making money, which was tough. I’d have open studios and visits to meet people.. I also worked at Starbucks, and did tours at MoMA and PS1. This was actually the year that I came into contact with Mixed Greens gallery, through fellow Wake alum Mary Leigh Cherry. She was in town from LA and brought the MG people along for a studio visit.
After the PS1 residency I was hired by a non profit which placed artists in public schools to teach art. I taught Pre-K through 3rd grade for two years which was a definite challenge- I had no previous experience or training. Next I joined another non profit, working as the Operations Coordinator at The Drawing Center. The five years I spent there was great for building up a network and being known in the community; by working in the arts I met a ton of people like artists and curators, was at every opening, doing the installation of each show.
During my time at both jobs I was making art, having shows, and developing my own practice. I was still having meetings with Mixed Greens approximately a year and a half since the first meeting via Mary. It took time to get to know one another, but the relationship was long-lived from that point. I had shows with them for 14 years until they closed in 2016. It was a good run, and by this juncture I was ready to go another direction.
My ultimate goal was to be a college professor, because it was a more reasonable and balanced way to maintain my artistic practice whilst working full time. I started adjunct teaching and then got a job at the Parsons School of Design as an academic advisor. I spent two years there, and kept making art and teaching at other places at the same time.
When the Penn State job came up, having The Drawing Center and Parsons on my CV proved very useful. The actual artwork I was producing was a factor as well. I’ve been at Penn State for seven years now and it’s been the perfect marriage of teaching and producing work. After working as much as I have explained, like three jobs at once and still trying to make art, this position allows me to balance work and artmaking so that neither is battling the other for precedent. I thrive with the extra time I have.. I can apply for grants, get the summertime off, and step back periodically to reflect and examine the work I’ve done in depth.
DL: Were you set on being an artist throughout undergrad? You double-majored in Studio and Biology…
RS: Coming into Wake I had zero designs of making art; I hadn’t even done it in high school! I was three years into the Bio/pre-Med track before I took my first art classes. I took Dave Finn’s class my junior year and a lightbulb went off- I was like, ‘This is awesome’. Compared to the hours of cramming biology notes at the library and regurgitating information, the critiques and open discussion in art classes were incredible. I loved having an individual voice.
DL: There can be pressure for Wake students to complete majors like Biology or Business; were your parents supportive of your sudden switch to a Studio focus?
RS: They were supportive because they saw how passionate I was about it. Of course it was worrisome to leave a track that’s so well paid career-wise, to jump into the void and just go for it.
I’d also say I got off to a pretty good start as far as artmaking and understanding that process, what it’s about. Prior to taking that class with Dave, I thought art was purely about skill and making pretty pictures. I learned it could be about something entirely different, like dealing with issues of the day and communicating with people. The small size of the art program at Wake was great because the professors were able to directly play roles in the development of my artistic direction. They were incredibly supportive. It was also great that Wake’s format requires all students to study different subjects- religion, history, science.. All of that made me more well rounded than if I had attended an art school for undergrad. The theoretical backgrounding was added during my time obtaining the MFA.
DL: How did you locate and apply to all of the various jobs, programs and residencies you’ve obtained?
RS: When I graduated in 1998 there was an internet, but things weren’t online the way they are now. For me it was teacher’s recommendations, library research and hearing things from other people. The advantage to word of mouth or inside rec’s is that they’re already vetted; for instance I tell my students, don’t apply to be in shows that require you to pay a fee. That’s a business model, not a show you want to be part of.
DL: What other advice have you got for students aspiring to be an artist in NYC?
RS: Come to town with something to do and get involved in. Showing up empty handed can be pretty tough. If you arrive for a residency or job… even an unpaid internship, you have a starting point. It begins with small things like these, and you’ll be hustling around, meeting people and forging connections with your peers who will then invite you to things, get to know you. However, the key is to juggle all that whilst still making your work. It all comes down to keeping your work at the forefront. If you meet Mary Boone and she asks to see your website, you’ll obviously want to have something to show her.
DL: So if you could boil this down into a mantra for the readers, what would it be?
RS: The main point: stay on your game and keep the faith! There will be times when you’re making your work and wondering if it’ll come to anything, if you’ll ever get to show it to someone. If you put in the work everyday and keep the faith the right moment will come along and you’ll be ready.