Nick DeFord is an artist, educator, and arts administrator who resides in Knoxville, TN. He received his MFA from Arizona State University, and a MS and BFA from the University of Tennessee. Nick regularly exhibits his fiber and mixed media work, with past exhibitions at the Bascom Center for Visual Arts, The Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, the Knoxville Museum of Art and East Tennessee State University. His artwork and writing has been published in Surface Design Journal, Elephant Magazine, Hayden Ferry Review, and Willow Springs. Currently, Nick is the Chief Programs Officer at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, as well as a board member for the National Basketry Organization. He also regularly teaches fiber workshops, with past workshops at the University of Louisville, East Carolina University, Arrowmont, and Penland School of Craft. In the fall of 2018 he was a resident at the Rauschenberg Residency in Captiva, Florida. Additionally, he was the juror/reviewer for the Ohio Arts Council and the juror for the American Tapestry Biennial 13.
Tell us a little more about yourself. When did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in this industry?
It felt almost like happenstance when I look back. At the end of the first day of orientation for my undergraduate degree, they asked us to divide up based on our majors. I had not even given it a thought yet, but enjoyed art in high school. So I went with the group of art majors. From there, each new aspect of art – from fibers, to art education, to working for an arts non-profit – just kind of followed as I followed that path.
Where are you from and what is the arts community like there? How has your upbringing shaped what you do in the arts today?
I grew up in East Tennessee, and luckily Knoxville has some pretty great cultural institutions for a relatively small town: the Knoxville Art Museum, the Dogwood Arts Festival, the Bijou and Tennessee Theaters. So, I was able to really explore many different perspectives in art, theater and music while in high school and college. Even now, Knoxville continues to grow, with some really incredible festivals and arts events like the Big Ears Festival (https://bigearsfestival.org/) and the Knoxville Horror Film Fest (https://www.knoxhorrorfest.com/) – both of which I enjoy quite a bit.
Tell us more about Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts and how you came to be a part of their team!
Arrowmont is a school that seeks to enrich lives through art and craft, which we do through many different programs. Arrowmont is probably most well known for our national workshops – we schedule about 150 one-week, two-week and weekend workshops per year, inviting teaching artists from around the country and world. We have housing and dining on campus for a truly immersive creative experience, so that students can stay on campus for the duration of the workshop without distraction or travel. In addition to our national workshops, we also have an Artist-in-Residency program, many galleries with a robust exhibition schedule, and community workshops and programs for adults, young adults, and children.
I joined the Arrowmont team in 2012 – I had just ended my tenure as a lecturer at a university art program, and was actually teaching a one-week workshop at the beginning of that summer. While I was there, I heard they had an opening for the Program and Studio Manager position, so I expressed interest and applied. Even though 2012 was when I joined as a staff member, Arrowmont had already been a long part of my art career and education. I started taking workshops at Arrowmont in 2002, and came back for several summers. If it was not for the fiber and textile workshops I took at Arrowmont during those years, my path and experience would not have led me to my graduate experience in Fibers at Arizona State University – so Arrowmont was definitely foundational for me in my creative career.
What does the day-to-day look like for you in your role as Chief Program Officer at Arrowmont?
Well, there’s a lot of email writing. And many meetings with other leadership staff and my managers. But when we are in workshop sessions, or if there are exhibition openings, then there’s also many great conversations with instructors, artists and students. For me, sometimes, the biggest irony is that I feel unstuck in time. For instance, I just finished wrapping up hiring for 2023 workshops last month, and so I was speaking and emailing with over 150 instructors for classes that will not begin for another seven months. And when those amazing artists eventually are on campus, I will be hiring and planning for 2024 – so I always feel like part of me exists in the present, but another part of me is already in the future. I feel very much like a time traveler.
What is something you do every day to keep you motivated?
I think related to the above question, I try to get out and talk to instructors and exhibiting artists when I can. With so much screen time, and future planning, I need to remind myself about the present and the creative energy of those around us in the moment. I am naturally an introvert, so sometimes being extroverted and talkative can be outside my comfort zone, but it does also ground me in what I am planning for and Arrowmont’s mission. I also do the New York Times Sudoku puzzle every day. When sometimes things seem out of my control, putting those numbers in their correct little boxes feels immensely gratifying.
What does a day off look like for you?
I always joke that, when you work in programming for an art school, you never really get a day off. We always have constituents on Arrowmont’s campus – either students or instructors, or Artists-in-Residence and visiting artists. So, of course, sometimes there are things that come up and issues to resolve on campus, even if I’m off campus. But I work with an amazing programming team, and other Arrowmont staff, and so we all work together to make sure that when we do get days off, others are at the helm to handle the ship. But when I am off, I do enjoy board games, horror movies (see the above note about the Knoxville Horror Film Festival), and recently have taken a break from making visual art to get into some writing.
What is the best piece of advice you can give about working in the art world?
Actually, recently I gave some advice about taking advice about working in the art world, which seems topical here. The art world is like a giant national park (like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, adjacent to Arrowmont). They are both vast, with many distinct biomes and communities. But just like the GSMNP, there are also many different points of ingress into the art world. So I always give caution when people ask me for advice about how to approach working in the art world, because I can only give my path into this space. And my path differs so much from others – just as there are hundreds, if not thousands, of ways into a large national park, so is there into the vast landscape of art. Therefore it is best to be specific about what you are seeking, and ask those people who can help, and then get lots of viewpoints and opinions. Merge all of those together and forge your own path forward.
What are you most excited for this year at Arrowmont or in the art world as a whole?
We opened up Arrowmont’s first satellite location this past year, the Arrowmont Gallery in Knoxville, which is right downtown. It opened in April of 2022, and we really rushed to get the space open for that date. Since then, we have been slowly improving the space and the experience, only recently in September expanding our hours to each and every weekend. But in 2023, we really plan to explore just how we can utilize that exhibition venue to bring attention to our artists and programming that we do on our campus in Gatlinburg. This means bringing more visiting and nationally known artists to exhibit in the gallery, which connects these artists to a larger audience. I’m really excited about that potential, and the events and connections that can happen from there.
How do you think the art world can become more transparent?
I think what we are doing right now – asking questions, answering questions, and having a conversation – is the best way. Sometimes art institutions and art itself can seem enigmatic and mysterious, as if it’s guarding some secret or arcane knowledge. But the more honest that artists can be about their process, both creative and professionally, the more expanded and inclusive the field becomes and the more people feel connected to art and art education.
If you could own work by 5 different artists/craftspeople, who would be in your collection?
As it happens, I do own work by (more than, but we’ll try to keep it close to) five different artists and craftspeople. Working at Arrowmont, with all our wonderful galleries and artists passing through, means it’s very difficult to not buy great art when it comes by. I own many functional ceramics pieces, but probably the most by artists Jen Allen (www.jenniferallenceramics.com) and Joseph Pintz (https://iconceramics.com/) – but some of my more recent acquisitions from the last year or two have been from former Arrowmont artist-in-residence Horacio Casillas (https://www.horaciocasillas.com/) and Brooks Oliver (https://www.brooksoliver.com/). I also own some great fiber works, as a fiber artist myself. Two of my favorite pieces are by Amanda Thatch (https://www.amandathatch.com/) and Emily Dvorin (https://www.emilydvorin.com/). From an Arrowmont event his past spring, I was also lucky enough to acquire a piece from Nuveen Barwari (https://nuveenbarwari.com/) that hangs in my office. That’s slightly more than five, but it’s hard to narrow down! (And apologies for everyone in my collection whom I did not mention).