A resident of Charlottesville since 1993, Jennifer Hoyt Tidwell is a woman with many titles: theatre and performance artist; co-founder of the Charlottesville Lady Arm Wrestlers (CLAW); member of PEP (Charlottesville’s only professional theatre ensemble); solo parent of a 10-year-old; and founder of a technology business.
This month Jennifer was awarded the first annual Public Artist residency at the Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative. As a part of her residency, Jennifer will be producing a series of public performances entitled NO WAKE in the Spring of 2016. According to Tidwell: “We need more donors and organizations investing in local individual artists to preserve and strengthen Charlottesville’s culture, cultivate more bold and innovative work, and keep serious emerging and mid-career artists from fleeing Charlottesville from lack of opportunities and funding.”
Bold and progressive, Jennifer brings an entrepreneurial, celebratory, and—when necessary– critical voice to the important dialogue on all that lies ahead for Charlottesville’s art and business space.
Where did the idea for CLAW come from?
It actually started as a joke between me and a friend. My friend Jodie Plaisance and I were out on the town and arm wrestled each other to pass the time waiting for a band to play. After I beat her handily, she kept challenging me to rematches. She kept losing so we started lifting weights to give her a better chance. At the gym our smacktalk escalated into creating fake personas, and lying to everybody around us by telling them that we were starting a league and asking if they wanted to be a part of it. Even though I was lying, people were seriously interested. I started to take the joke seriously and talk about possibilities with Jodie.
Prior to CLAW I had already co-produced two large collaborative arts carnivals at the IX Building (Wunderkammer and Shentai) with a group of artists in 2006 & 2007. This ignited my interest in large-scale collaborative arts projects. “Container vehicles” as I now describe my ideas. In other words, I found I had a gift for imagining formats that allow many artists to contribute and shape an event. Also, my husband had recently passed away and having access to a different perspective and mental state gave me the confidence and permission to pull off projects of similar scale.
What were the first steps to founding CLAW?
Once I started to believe the idea had legs (or arms) I started asking anyone anywhere if they wanted to participate in a ladies arm wrestling league. Male or female or in between, almost everyone expressed interest in being involved in some way.
I called an informational meeting at the Blue Moon Diner and about 25 people showed up. All I knew at the outset is that I wanted to create a theatrical ladies arm wrestling league with women embodying different personas with entourages and theme songs. And I imagined it happening in the back room of the Blue Moon with its smoky ambiance. At that meeting, which included a group of friends I’d collaborated with on other projects, we figured out that the audience’s incentive to bet and bribe could be that all the money would go to charities, specifically women-initiated causes.
How do you measure CLAW’s success?
It’s successful on so many levels. In the four months after our inaugural event, we saw our audience grow from 75 to something like 450 and up and we were at 700 within a year. We raise between $2,000-4,000 in unrestricted funding to woman-initiated causes per event. Since 2008, CLAW has produced nearly 30 events, with an average of 300-500 spectators. We’ve raised almost $100,000 for charities. We’ve become a collectively run organization and a loose family. We provide women a burlesque-style forum to act out and send up stereotypes, archetypes, and address social norms and current events. Borrowing from carnival tradition, women often give themselves permission to express a side of themselves they can’t in regular workaday life. It’s also successful on the level of grassroots fundraising.
Since CLAW was created, roughly 30 other leagues have sprung up all over the country with one group outside the US. It is a growing decentralized collective movement of like-minded folks. There is now a mothership organization called CLAW USA which helps new groups form and fosters communication between sister leagues. Because it’s remained a DIY movement, each city has a different focus and a different expression of the mission “to empower women and local communities through theater, arm wrestling and philanthropy.”
What do you think is the connection between art and entrepreneurship?
I think all artists are entrepreneurial to some degree, but most of the ones I know hate promoting themselves and feel like they’re terrible at business and aren’t interested in it.
I happen to have a weird collection of skills for an artist. From the earliest days I’ve been an actor and a writer, but I’m also a businessperson and a technology nerd. At times I’m an activist. And as the co-founder and former president of a web development firm I have ten years experience in sales. All of that disparate experience has made me pretty comfortable moving between worlds and communicating in many different languages within our community. I have no problem asking for money or promoting projects. To me it’s just matchmaking. I wish I had 75 hours in a day so I could do even more to raise money for and promote other artists and innovators in town.
What’s it like being an artist in Charlottesville?
I certainly can’t speak for anyone but myself but there are a lot of positives for me making work and living here. I have lived here my whole adult life (except for one year on an island far, far away) and so I have deep relationships and webs of collaboration. By being here for 20 years, I am fortunate to have people’s trust and support for what I like to make. AND I never lose sight of the fact that I am an enormously privileged person in just about every way, though, so I see it as a mission of mine to bring more attention and support to artists who aren’t as extroverted or squeaky-wheel as I.
How can Charlottesville do a better job supporting artists?
I wish other organizations and institutions, including our local governments, would follow the Bridge’s lead and offer grant and residency opportunities and I would love to see us balance out the support for artistic institutions with support for individuals. I see the New City Arts Initiative making headway here.
It would up my game and the arts scene in general if there were more people making challenging art and performance here. A healthy artistic ecosystem in a city this size would ideally have a lot more diversity– in modes of artistic expression, age, skill, socio-economic status, race & ethnicity… all kinds of diversity. OR… maybe we have all that and we’re so isolated I don’t know about who’s doing what. I’m really interested in cross-pollination and I’m actively pursuing uniting many communities in my upcoming project with the Bridge.
We also need affordable space to work and collaborate. I miss the 90s and early 2000s when there was still empty warehouse space and developer Gabe Silverman, bless his soul, would allow us to use space for free. Right now, McGuffey is the only game in town but it’s my understanding that the artists, most of whom are visual artists, can use their studios indefinitely. It would be great to have a live-work-eat facility that houses rotating artists, including musicians and performers and attracts the public. Along those lines, some day I would like to implement an idea I’ve had about creating a store-front residency space that houses three artists for a year– a nationally known artist, a regionally known artist, and a local artist working and creating in combination with one another. It would be ideal if the artists in the rotation choose who is going to follow them.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a founder?
I guess this is obvious, but in order to create something new you have to know what you value and what problem you’re trying to solve or conversation you want to start. And you have to be motivated by more than money or security.
I’m not sure I believe in giving unbidden advice, so take of this what you will: practice, practice, practice embracing the discomfort and fear that comes when you step into the void to translate a dream into something in the real world. Seek out partners who are open minded, willing to face uncertainty, and can stay flexible. Expect to feel terrified, at least for a little while at the beginning. That means you are onto something. Also, in my experience, the more I practice jumping into the void, the less frightened I am to take a chance on something I barely even understand.