Clare Gillen and the Importance of Play
We recently had the chance to enjoy a morning with Clare Gillen over a video call. Clare is a Creative Director, as well a practicing artist working within the mediums of Photography, Video, and Design.
In our conversation with Joel Evey on Adversity, Joel references Clare as a model figure when playing the role of Devil’s Advocate.
Clare breaks down her approach to giving constructive feedback, what keeps her up at night, and how Play has worked its way into her practice.
CG: Before we start, I’m curious to know: How did I come up in your conversation with Joel?
MW: By happenstance really. I was talking to Joel about his experience with teaching and how that was going for him, and some of the things he had been learning through it. He started talking about a class he had taught at Pratt, and how you were a guest speaker. He spoke on how you coming in as a guest lecturer was something that really transcended this teacher-student relationship for him, and how he felt like he was learning alongside his class. And I can’t think of a better way to start this off. Has playing the Devil’s Advocate been something that has come naturally for you? And do you think you’re good at pushing those boundaries to end up with a better final product?
CG: It’s a really interesting question. I think the ability to bring Play into my work fundamentally turns this conversation on its head. I’m on set all the time. Everyone can get really serious and insecure really, really fast. I’ve found that being able to bring in elements of exploration and fun and humor always saves the day for me. Sometimes you just have to make a mess in order to establish some sort of clarity. Otherwise it might never show up. It’s crazy to live in a world where Cool is currency. Only when you start pushing those boundaries to the edge, I think, is when work can become genuinely Cool. So that being said, I try and maintain this “Yes, and” mentality with clients. Yes, we will get exactly what you want, but let’s also try this other weird thing because: Why not? It’s only going to take two minutes, so let’s see what happens.
MW: I’m sure that oftentimes has come with its own backlash and strange glances from clients. How have you handled that?
CG: It definitely has. But my goal is to make something genuine. And at the end of the day, it’s really a value system for me. It’s what defines me, so it’s not something that I want to downplay, even though I’m oftentimes grappling with it—when is it appropriate to play Devil’s Advocate, and how much trust do I have to earn with someone before I can start to push them a little bit?
MW: It’s a really fine line to walk. Pushing too hard too soon has some pretty irreversible effects, especially on set, I think.
CG: Totally. It takes a tremendous amount of sensitivity, and being really good at listening. The last thing I would want to do is to make someone uncomfortable. It’s not worth it to me. It’s an exercise for me to consider: Where can I push? Because why hire me, or why engage with me, if you can just do it all yourself?
MW: How are you managing these relationships? I feel like we often talk about being able to receive critique, but equally important is the ability to give critique without isolating the other party.
CG: Absolutely. There’s a really big issue of shame around creative work. Maybe around people speaking their mind in general. I think most importantly, you have to make sure you’re not shutting someone down. That allows a field of possibilities to stay open. A lot of people shut others down without thinking. Or worse, they do it to make themselves feel more secure in their idea. I’ve had mentors of mine do that to me. I see adults do it to each other all the time. I have a lot of empathy, so I want people to feel empowered in their vulnerability. When I was in art school, you learned that you can’t just say something is bad or good. That doesn’t cut it. There has to be language built around that. And that’s the beautiful thing about including Play into this equation. I’m establishing this edge of vulnerability, so it’s going to be easier for someone else to do so. Lead by example, you know?
MW: The motto. I’ve always believed vulnerability is rewarded. I’m glad you brought up art school though. When I went to art school, giving proper critique was drilled into us. We’d have six hour long critiques, so saying that something was good or bad is pretty low-hanging fruit, you know? But I’m curious where you went and what your experience was like.
CG: Yeah. So we’re talking about participating. I’ve been thinking about that this entire time. How do you participate in a conversation, in a relationship, in any kind of hierarchy. I’ll circle back to that. But, I went to a strange little Quaker college called Guilford in North Carolina. I wasn’t planning on going there, but I visited a friend who was going there, and had a really strange experience. I felt like I had been there before and I had already known it well. It was really magical. Being a really small Liberal Arts school, there was an emphasis on participation. I see how many people didn’t have that expectation in their education to share and participate in the conversation. I think it’s the reason that I’m so comfortable in sharing my thoughts and asking hard questions.
MW: So you did this guest lecture with Joel at Pratt. Was that your first experience with teaching, or had you done it before?
CG: So that was my first experience lecturing a class. A fun fact though: After I graduated college, I was in Philadelphia and started doing a yoga teacher training program. And I swear that changed everything about my life. I swear it’s why I’m able to direct music videos now and lead conference calls with 20 people on them. All of those skills that I never thought would amount to much became really invaluable.
MW: You see a lot of people mature in their career, at least in the creative field, and take the skills they’ve learned and apply them to courses for a semester at a time. Could you see yourself doing that at any point?
CG: 100%. I’m already doing that. I’m already collecting little weirdos and bringing them into my zone and giving them what I know. And I’m really trying to spread these bigger values and truths that I feel are really crucial to me. I’m trying to figure out right now what that looks like. Is it creative work? Spiritual is a heavy word, but is it work that is mindful? I’m not quite sure what it is yet, but it’s definitely in the cards. Talking to Joel’s class really solidified that for me. It was so much fun. At this point I feel like I have enough to share, and there are people who want to hear that. What’s more meaningful than that?
MW: Is mentorship something that is important to you?
CG: That’s a really amazing question. I’ve had a complicated relationship with the answer. One of my professors, an amazing woman, is now my life coach. She would always force us to have class in the woods and read poetry even though it was a photography class. I talk with her and it’s like I’m looking in the mirror. So that’s been deeply transformative. On the other side of that coin, I’ve had some amazing male mentors that I’ve worked for who I feel like weren’t very supportive of me, and were pissed when I left. And that’s a hard situation to try and be the bigger person in. I had my first assistant ever leave me last year, and it was crazy to see myself in the same position as they were. The tables had turned. I’m now in this position to try and help move somebody forward with their dreams and help them find work and make connections. It’s a pretty big responsibility, and it’s a lot of energy to not just treat people the way that you’ve been treated.
MW: But it seems like you’re taking all the right steps, you know? And I know you’re investing in the people who are helping you out. I love that you’re building this little empire and entrusting people to continue a practice. It’s crazy to me.
CG: I’d like to think that I am. It’s definitely an ongoing thing. The biggest benefit to me out of mentorship is the community that it forms. Who doesn’t want more people to geek out on stuff with? It’s all to our benefit.
MW: I want to switch it up a little bit. Earlier you mentioned that your goal is to make things that are genuine. How would you describe your style and how are you approaching making work that is genuine?
CG: So it’s strange because I’m a creative director, and I’m also dabbling in art and photography, for sure. A lot of people in my position are only ever hiring subcontractors to do their work. So maybe they hire someone to build an entire world in CGI and they’re not actually touching any of that stuff. And that might look really cool and fancy, but a lot of the enjoyment for me comes from touching the stuff that I work on. I had an old boss always say that I need to be telling everybody what to do. If I find myself actually doing the work, then I’m not a creative director, I’m a retoucher, or I’m sitting behind a screen all the time. And I don’t think I agree necessarily. When I’m allowed to interact with and touch the work, it inherently brings this human quality into it. It feels much more personal. I feel like my work always contains some sort of openness and humor to it. Like I said earlier, vulnerability is something that is very important to me. My style has been described as DIY quite a bit, because it is very DIY. And I don’t really want that to go away. I think there’s a common misconception that because something is DIY, it’s cheap, and I’m trying to break away from that mindset. I definitely am trying to have bigger budgets as I move forward in my projects, but I still want there to be this human element involved. The biggest influence on my life and my work other than my weird hippie college and being in the woods for multiple years there, has been travelling to really unique places and learning about different cultures and seeing how they express themselves. It really brought this element of soul and passion into my work that I’m always considering now.
MW: I don’t think anybody travels as much as they’d like to, but are you forcing yourself to get out and explore new places?
CG: I think there’s a distinction that has to be made between travelling for business as opposed to maybe travelling for growth. I think both can be exhausting, but especially travelling for business, obviously. I’m really fortunate to have a best friend who works in international relations and politics, who helps force me to go explore new places.
MW: I want to circle back. So your work is incredibly multi-disciplinary. Do you find working on certain mediums are more rewarding than others, or is it more so project by project?
CG: I find creating images more rewarding. Sadly, when you’re just creative directing an image, you’re kind of undervalued. No one notices the creative director or gives them credit. We’re so used to the photographer getting credit. Especially when it’s hard for people to even understand what the hell a creative director does.
MW: It’s interesting though. Because in the film industry it seems like those roles are reversed. You see the director getting all the credit for the vision, while the DP, and whoever else is responsible for making the image, is kind of getting swept under the rug.
CG: It’s really bizarre and pretty frustrating. I do feel like we’re seeing that change a little bit though. Do you see that?
MW: Yeah, definitely. I think over the past few years, people have really started to pay attention to small Indie production companies, like A24. They started to pay attention to who was DP’ing those projects. You see the ASC is starting to get more recognition, people know who Roger Deakins is, and can recognize his images. Maybe it’s just because of social media, and there’s more ownership to imagery. I’m not quite sure.
CG: I think it is. It’s also interesting to see shows like Euphoria that have guest directors coming in. That changes the game too. It’s not just one person taking full ownership. People are starting to pay attention to the different facets of filmmaking. Maybe before social media, there was a curtain over it all, and people just assumed that everything was being made by one individual.
MW: Yeah. Speaking of work made by one individual, it’s so crazy to see all the work that you’ve been pumping out these past few months. I know nobody likes to play favorites, but are there any of your projects that stand out in your mind?
CG: I really loved the work I did for King Princess. It was just so much fun. I look back on it and just remember laughing so hard the entire time. It was really silly. We had this great flow where I would work on something and she would hover over it and make suggestions. Again. It comes back to Play. I feel like any genius’ work feels like play. It’s also been really rewarding to do a bunch of photo projects in the last few months for no reason. Something that started out of a need to practice and have fun, ended up leading to some of my favorite work. No stylist, no lighting assistant, just me and the artist having fun. And a few months later, their teams would come back and ask for a photo buyout. I saw photos I took of Channel Tres up on WeTransfer not too long ago. It’s all pretty crazy. To see projects that have a real lightness around them, and still be successful, has been so rewarding to experience.
MW: I noticed your Instagram bio has Play before Photography, before Art. Before everything else really. I find that so fascinating.
CG: Yeah. It’s something I’ve changed recently. I feel that Play is more important than any of the actual work. It’s something that I could get really excited about for my future. And I’m still unpacking what exactly that is and what it means. I truly believe that Play is here to literally save the world and make us feel sane, amidst all the chaos of reality.
MW: So you have this dichotomy, of taking your work seriously and making it as good as it can be, but also acknowledging that the work itself is not meant to be taken so seriously. Do you ever find those two forces contradicting each other?
CG: All the time. And I’m pretty self-conscious about it.
MW: How are you micromanaging that balance?
CG: I feel a tremendous amount of pressure to do good by people. To do well. And to make sure that people are getting what they paid for and that the client is happy. Almost to a fault, as a woman. I want to please the people that I work with. I take the work so seriously, for them more than anything else. I have to remind myself to take a step back to see the real importance of the work, which is returning to the value system. Evaluating the work under a microscope is how I’m gauging the quality of the project, but observing an entire body of work to understand how life principles are being practiced is how I reset.
MW: It can be debilitating, when you’re at the mercy of a client or anyone other than yourself. I think maybe it’s a pressure that most people don’t like to acknowledge because of the system in place.
CG: Yeah. Especially when you’re really fresh and excited to try something new and crazy, and people just want the same safe work. Not pushing those boundaries. It’s baby steps. But if I look back and see how far I’ve come, and how much I’ve evolved, I can easily say that I’m proud of myself. And if I keep going with that mentality, who knows where I’ll be in five years, or what weird shit I’ll be cooking up then. I like to think that it’ll be very different.
MW: What keeps you up at night Clare?
CG: Ugh. I could say so many things. Besides aliens? What keeps me up at night is trying to fully understand what it is that I find meaningful. I want to be able to dance around the bullshit. I live in LA and the standards of beauty and class are really high here. And it’s really hard not to get caught up in those standards. I feel inclined to share my thoughts towards these practices and beliefs, but there’s an inherent risk in that, I think. It’s risky because it’s not what my career is. And it’s not what people expect from me. So I’m struggling with this weird question of how to invite Grief in, in order to be really honest with myself about what actually matters. I say grief as I think about aging, and the loss of life, and the management of expectations. That and boys, I guess. I say boys, not men.
MW: Where do you think the risk comes from?
CG: Probably from this contemporary creative community. Nobody wants to hear someone else ramble. I think we’re all pretty weary of fake positivity at this point. But I do think if we’d all be a little more vulnerable, we’d be a little closer to realness. It’s a work in progress, for sure.
MW: It’s clear to see that you’re just having so much fun making work with and for your friends. What’s it look like to start making things for yourself?
CG: Oh my god. It’s so much harder than I could imagine. It’s also something that keeps me up at night, for sure. I told you about my work being professional and doing a good job for other people. And I’m having a really hard time giving myself that same energy. But it’s definitely something I’m working on. It’s been really fun to dabble in some of that over quarantine. Just taking dumb selfies that are actually some kind of postmodern art, maybe.
MW: The toilet paper selfies. I wasn’t going to mention them, but they’re just magnificent.
CG: Right? It’s funny because my manager is like: “Cool. Those are fine, Clare, but why not try making real art sometime?” And I’m like: “What do you mean real art?” But it’s more complicated than I initially thought. I used to hold the idea that nobody needed to see anything else from me, but I’m slowly breaking that down. And growing into it. I’m excited to see what lies ahead.