Artist Taylor Yocom Gives Us 7 Lessons On Creating Art That Moves People

In the digital age, it's everyone's dream to have something go viral. In her last semester of her senior year at the University of Iowa, this happened to materials-based artist Taylor Yocom, and she wasn't even trying. Guarded, a series of portraits of women holding up the things they use to protect themselves from sexual violence, was picked up by a slough of online publishers. Today, the BuzzFeed post has well over 1 million views.

"The whole experience was so rewarding and surreal," says Yocom. "I remember getting lunch with a friend the day everything started, and I would check my phone and have more emails from reporters. They remarked that this whole experience was like a movie."

While it does indeed sound like a movie, it's no surprise that Yocom's project became an international trending topic. Her photo series Guarded, inspired by a simple discussion in class, addresses something very jarring about the female experience. Whether you've been attacked or just been warned, Yocom's portraits start an important dialogue about rape culture and the way it effects how women move about in the world. This year, Yocom has been touring college campuses with her work and hosting discussions about campus sexual assault. She's beginning an M.F.A. program in visual arts starting this year at the University of Washington in St. Louis. Not a bad track record for 24. 

It's that combination of social justice, creativity, and drive that's earned artist Taylor Yocom her spot as one of Bustle's Upstart Awards winners of 2016. I got a chance to talk to her about her projected path, the importance of art in the fight for social justice, and got a couple tidbits of advice from her. 

1. Hold Onto Your Mementos... They Might Just Become Your Work Someday

As a materials-based artist, Yocom gathers objects and makes them into something that speaks to her. From her prom dress to an old can of PBR, everything is material. 

"I can't just pick up a pencil and draw," she says. "Rather, I use a camera to document what's around me, or I hang onto the ephemera or objects from my youth that I just can't throw away." 

2. You Should Establish A Strong Point Of View

From her work with Guarded to her more recent projects, Yocom uses accessible, everyday objects to address the condition of being a woman in the 21st century. 

"I want to combine my own archive to use feminist perspectives in my work and talk about cultural expectations put on women," she says. A great example of her feminist POV is her piece "The Hostess With The Mostess," an installation of a perfectly set, midcentury dining table with irreverent little additions that critique the old-school idea of the "perfect hostess."  

3. You Can Tell A Story Without Saying A Word

One of her projects, "Food That Boys Bought Me"— a photo series featuring different meals, tokens, and drinks that guys have bought her— is a perfect example of her ability to tell a story through imagery. You see dates, conversations, and personalities through these simple objects, and you feel like you're getting to know her through her work.  Considering her childhood dream of being an author, this story is perfect kismet: "Now, I’m telling stories through pictures, so I guess it fits!" she says. 

4. You Don't Have To Follow The Expected Path

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"In high school I was really into arguing," Yocom says to me over Google Hangout, mid-laugh. She's remembering her early days of college, when she entered as an environmental science major with ambitions of being an environmental lawyer. 

"When I got into college, I realized that art was another way to present your argument," she says. "One day, I picked up a toy camera and chose to switch my major." 

5. Art And Activism Go Hand In Hand 

"I think it’s really important," Yocom tells me when I ask her how art can lead to social justice."[Art] gets your point across, and it brings groups together and forges commonalities." 

Those commonalities will lead to a dialogue and hopefully, a collective sense of responsibility. Reflecting on the experience of traveling with Guarded, she emphasized the ability of art to "start difficult and much-needed conversations, shedding light on peoples' stories."

6. Find Yourself A Great Mentor

Right when you graduate, the idea of cold-emailing someone you admire might seem extra bold. But you have nothing to lose, and everything to gain! 

"Don't be afraid to find people doing what you're wanting to do and ask them for advice," she says. "I know, for sure, that I don't have all the answers right now. I needed to find a mentor."

7. Don't Be Afraid To Ask For What You Want

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When you're starting out in the working world, there's a certain expectation that good things come to those who wait. But a lot of the time, you have to ask for what you want, rather than waiting for the world to bring it to you. 

"Society won’t want you to ask for what you want," Yocom says. This especially applies to young women, who are brought up to think that assertive ambitious women are "bossy." But knowing your worth is key to succeeding. 

"You’re worth it, you’re doing amazing things," she says. "Go in and ask for what you want."

Images: Taylor Yocom (5); Taylor Yocom / Instagram (2); Design: Caroline Wurtzel / Bustle

Click here for more information about Bustle's 2016 Upstart Awards!

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