Nothing is more mysterious to the uninitiated than the local art world, with its obscure names and rarified codes. Who made these pictures, and why? By what arrangement did they get on these walls, and what are they supposed to do there? Don't You Lie to Me, a new podcast, aims to demystify this milieu, from the creative to the administrative level, by coloring in personalities around the names. Its creators, Warren Hicks and Jeff Bell, are uniquely suited to the task. Both are artists with accessible voices and deep local connections who have shown and worked behind the scenes in institutions across the state.
The podcast (www.DontYouLieToMe.com) is a product of Hicks and Bell's longtime friendship, starting with its name. "If you tell Jeff something good has happened to you, he'll say, 'Don't you lie to me, Warren!'" Hicks explains in his studio at Golden Belt, where he's gathered with Bell over glasses of rye from one of many half-full bottles left behind by Third Friday revelers.
While Bell is primarily a sculptor, Hicks works in many media, and his studio is full of whimsical bric-a-brac. A lot of stuffed animals have met terrible fates, from crucifixion to disembowelment, displaying the dark, spiky, but ultimately good-natured humor that Hicks, as producer and occasional interjecting sidekick, brings to the program. Meanwhile, Bell serves as the affable teddy-bear host, asking earnest, chatty, unscripted questions about artists' backgrounds and processes. The resulting dialogues are franker and less self-conscious than what you often hear at artist talks.
"The problem with artist talks is you show up and there's maybe ten people," Hicks says. "This is a portable artist talk, in a sense, that you can listen to on the way to work."
Don't You Lie to Me isn't about the art world talking to itself. The tone, while ardent about art, is loose, funny, familiar, and self-deprecating, much like its creators' rapport.
"I'm not hyper-theoretical," Bell says, chuckling. "I still look at artwork as a person who makes artwork. The materials, why you're doing it. But the way [the podcast] is structured, the inserts, all those things are really Warren's voice, so it's a good combination of both of us."
Hicks, who grew up in Oklahoma and then lived in Miami, moved to Chapel Hill in 2000. After years of working in the music industry—retail, distribution, and music-biography publishing—he felt burned out. So he went to Jerry's Artarama in Raleigh and reinvented himself as a painter, going on to procure his Golden Belt studio and show in many local exhibits. He also started working in art installation, handling and placing pieces for exhibits, which he still does on a freelance basis. His background in home recording prepared him to produce the podcast, including creating its jaunty theme song and the background music for its parody ads.
Bell grew up in Goldsboro and then got undergraduate degrees in studio art and art history at UNC-Wilmington. He moved to Durham to become a registrar at the old Duke University Museum of Art, staying through the transition to the Nasher. After earning a graduate degree in studio art at UNC-Greensboro and working on contract installation jobs, which is how he met Hicks, Bell held a couple of positions at CAM Raleigh before taking his current job as museum manager at 21c Museum Hotel when it opened two years ago.
Though Hicks and Bell have statewide ambitions for Don't You Lie to Me's coverage, it began with their friends—quite naturally for an endeavor that started almost on a whim. The first person they interviewed was Chapel Hill's Carrie Alter, who shed light on her youth as the only female member of two graffiti crews as it relates to her modern paintings, among other topics. That interview, in January 2016, inspired Hicks and Bell to make a go of the podcast. It helped that Alter's husband, Matt McMichaels, had a home studio he would donate to record it. The first episode, a sampler of four interviews, went up in August, followed by the full interview with Alter.
Subsequent episodes featured Durham stalwart Heather Gordon, best known for turning personal data into a kind of mathematical visual origami; Stacey L. Kirby, timed with her big win at the international ArtPrize festival; and Brandon Cordrey, director of Raleigh nonprofit Visual Art Exchange, which fiscally sponsors Don't You Lie to Me. A new episode featuring Beverly McIver just went up (listen to it at the bottom of this story), and VAE director of initiatives Rachel Herrick, whose pepper-spray paintings were featured in the INDY last year, is on deck next.
"Beverly has a great sense of humor and we can be abusive to each other, so it's fun," Hicks says. "So far most of our guests have been close friends and they abuse me quite a bit, and I have no microphone to defend myself. Like Rachel Herrick—she's brutal."
"They're brutal to each other," Bell clarifies, "but in this case Rachel had the microphone."
Jennifer Dasal, an associate contemporary curator at NCMA, also has an art podcast, ArtCurious, but its focus on topics such as mysteries in art history is very different from Don't You Lie to Me's human portraiture. Dasal will also be a guest on an upcoming episode, alongside Nasher exhibition designer Brad Johnson, a pairing that represents the podcast's ambition to illuminate all levels of the art world.
"When you go see art on the wall, there's so many people involved in making that happen, and we want to explore every aspect of it," Hicks says. "I learned so much of it installing at museums."
"It's somewhat unique that we are artists who work in museums, so we know the other side of it," Bell adds. "Often you'd be surprised how little one understands the other. People in museums can be removed and forget what artists are dealing with, and the same is true on the other side."
The format of the show is still developing, but it will remain interview-based, with drop-in segments such as a recent rundown of current exhibits by INDY contributor Chris Vitiello. So far, episodes have been downloaded more than fifteen hundred times. Hicks and Bell plan to start a Kickstarter soon to fund the purchase of their own recording equipment to set up in a space under the Carrack so they can record more interviews on a more flexible schedule, rather than doing several at a time when McMichaels's studio happens to be free. Then they'll be able to cross-promote more adroitly with North Carolina museums and galleries, gradually building a statewide online database of artists and venues—not just in the Triangle but also in Charlotte, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and Asheville.
Still, this prospective online arts hub will be built, grain by grain, from the voices of artists, who are afforded more breathing room and social warmth than usual. This human touch can give anyone, regardless of background or knowledge base, a way into the art world. Hicks and Bell both know why that's important from personal experience.
"My mother-in-law, who doesn't listen to podcasts, has listened to it, and was later super into meeting Heather [Gordon] and Carrie [Alter], and she doesn't really care about art," Bell says. "That was cool."
"My family doesn't understand me being an artist; they never took us to museums," Hicks adds. "I was nineteen or twenty before I went to one. I grew up in a really small town, so I wasn't exposed. The podcast seems to humanize the artists, because I think the general public sees art as an elitist enterprise. But if you can pique their curiosity enough, they get it."
"I'm always interested in where people come from," concludes Bell, who gives public tours at 21c to groups ranging from art lovers to people who've just wandered in. "It could be Warren talking about drawing when he was little, something anybody can make an association with. If you can connect that to what Heather does, maybe not as accessible-feeling, people realize it's not that removed. They think they're not allowed to be interested, but if you explain a little, they get into it." Don't You Lie to Me has the potential to open that door for a whole new audience.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Pod People."