OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Travis Townsend

Another Tankard
Wood and mixed media
100 x 100 x 100 inches

TRAVIS TOWNSEND’s large sculptural vessels appear to be part boat, part RV, part space ship, part ark. Tiny chairs and ladders occupy these vehicles, hinting at vague narratives of human cultures—past, present and future—in transition or possibly on the brink of extinction. Travis earned his BS from Kutztown University in Pennsylvania and his MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University. He received the Virginia A. Groot Foundation Sculpture Award in 2006, 2008 and 2009. His numerous solo exhibitions include shows at Southwest School of Art in San Antonio, Texas (2008), Manifest Gallery in Cincinnati (2012) and Washington State University (2014). As part of SmithTownsendCollaborative, he recently created a new installation with Brandon C. Smith titled view of the big nothing from an abandoned perch atop pink meat pod island (with Godbird watching) for the Lexington Art League’s Loudoun House. Travis teaches at Eastern Kentucky University and is represented by Ann Tower Gallery. An exhibition of Travis’ paintings will take place in Fall 2015 at the Living Arts and Science Center in Lexington, Kentucky, where he lives.

OtherPeoplesPixels: What came first for you: painting or sculpture?

Travis Townsend: I thought of myself predominately as a painter in high school and early college, but I’ve always made three-dimensional stuff. Looking back, the objects were always more interesting than the paintings. Throughout my first few years at Kutztown University, I thought sculpture was either boring, old statues or rusty chunks of big Modernist metal. It took me a while to realize that my woodworking/sculpture could be as weird and fun to make as the tree forts and skateboard ramps I built as a kid. I spent my last two years planted in the wood shop, making oddball furniture objects with heavily painted surfaces that I believed a wide range of viewers could understand, appreciate and live with. I sold a bunch right as I was graduating, so I thought I had it all figured out. Of course, then my work changed.

The paintings that came next had a strong resemblance to the surfaces of the furniture. Since graduate school at Virginia Commonwealth University, the creative process has become more evident in the finished paintings and sculptures. The more recent paintings are, to me, more interesting hung in clusters near the sculptures. I often think of them as some sort of information tablet that presents a layered history without ever really explaining it.

Since my first serious work began as furniture—albeit not in a traditional sense—the vessel has always been an appealing starting point for me in terms of form and potential meaning. Early on, the sculptures were more about what it meant to craft, and then re-create, objects that nostalgically relate to furniture objects, tools and toys that we live with. This series was called Rebuilt Domestic Devices. As the work shifted into a larger scale and began to look a bit like sad, homemade machines that were insufficient to do their tasks, the series became Renovated Flightless Devices.

Renovated Newky Toy
Wood and mixed media

OPP: Could you talk about the relationship between the sculptures and the wall drawings in your solo show Anxious Accumulations (2008) at Southwest School of Art in San Antonio, Texas?

TT: That show was very important to me. It was a big space that needed some fairly sizable objects. I had previously made a contraption-like sculpture connected to a wall drawing, but this was the first time I changed wall colors and pedestal colors and drew on the walls. The pronounced use of string as a three-dimensional line was new, too.

The act of drawing is very important to the creation of my sculptures, which evolve from continually-accumulating small doodles. When complete, the sculptures are a bit "sketchy" in the sense that they might seem unfinished or in-progress. From the beginning, I drew and painted on the sculptures, but it took a while for me to feel confident putting images on the walls. Most of my three-dimensional work has a strong linear gesture. So, building on this already present "drawing" sensibility with string and charcoal on walls has been a good fit. My vocabulary of simple symbolic images became more distilled with this show. The image of the dead bird could stand in for innocence and the cartoony army tank could be brutish, clumsy violence. These images are usually secondary and play a supporting role to the sculptures, but that may change in the future.

Vehicle of Strange Conception
Wood and mixed media

OPP: The lo-tech, DIY quality of your large sculptural vessels leads me to imagine large groups of people being forcefully exiled from their homelands. I think of diasporas in fictional outer space (the humans of Battlestar Galactica) and in history (the transatlantic slave trade). I also imagine the intentional exploration of new frontiers in history (colonial explorers) and in our contemporary world (Cuban immigrants crossing the Gulf Stream by boat). In all cases, these works evoke thoughts of the major upheaval of confronting the unknown. What narratives do you imagine for these vessels?

TT: Yes! Thanks for that. I appreciate hearing your ideas about what my work suggests. It is all of those things, without being any of those things specifically. I always hope that the layered possibilities become a jumping off point for viewers to fill in the narrative for themselves. There is more than one answer to the question of, So what does this mean?

The use of small boats, chairs, ladders, mini dwellings and the image of the dead bird is the most pronounced attempt at a narrative, however. I like the way these indicators of previous habitation change the associations of the larger vessel-like objects. From across the room, a viewer sees something that is human scale, but upon closer examination of the small built structures, docks, and flotilla of boats, one might start to think of the sculptures as massive arks for a possibly-extinct group of small people. What do the symbols suggest about the people who once inhabited the now-empty chairs? Did they build the boat-like contraptions? Did they abandon these vessels or did they die out? I keep thinking of those colossal heads on Easter Island and the abandoned cliff dwelling culture in the American Southwest. Also running through my mind are ideas about building machines we don't need, fouling up ourselves and others, then fleeing to start the whole process over again. Lately, some titles suggest this by using words like infected, abandoned and evacuation. Raft for __________  (with Infected Systems Drawing) does this most emphatically.

Randy Shull, one of my teachers at Penland, has made many works with a simple iconic chair-shape, and I've always loved Charles Simond's tiny, clay dwelling pieces. I probably wouldn't be creating the chairs and little clay bricks if had I never seen their work. Certain images stick with me for years before I see traces of their influence in what I'm making.

Ladder and Three Chairs
Wood, graphite

OPP: I'm curious about your choice of the word "renovated" to describe many of the pieces, as in Renovated Quarry Pot, Renovated TLC or the Renovated Flightless Devices. In what way are they renovated? What was their former state?

TT: The titles are mini artist statements that suggest the process and the type of object: toy, ark, tank, device, pot. The word renovated hints at a positive-sounding narrative of handmade improvements. I really do make and remake some of these things over and over again. But I also hope the viewer will wonder, why would someone keep "fixing" such useless-looking, slightly pathetic objects? A dominant theme in my work is the creative act of building itself. My studio practice is not unlike the tinkering of other middle-aged guys in their garages after their kids have gone to bed. Although, I was working this way long before I had a house with a garage. . . or three kids.

Raft for____________
Wood and mixed media

OPP: How has having kids changed your art practice or your art career?

TT: Time in the studio is much more precious. I don't waste as much time as I used to! My wife, Felicia Szorad, would probably say the same about her own studio activity. Our twin daughters are three, and our son is six. We recently purchased a home that needed renovations, so we've been extra busy these last few years. Gradually we’ll be able to get more studio time as they get a little older. Professional decisions are different now, since certain opportunities for exhibitions, residencies or teaching could disrupt the entire family. I concentrate on what I really want/need to do, rather than applying for or agreeing to whatever sounds interesting.  

Building an O gauge train layout bookshelf for my kids has been a surprisingly arty experience, so the line between it and my sculptures could get pretty vague. Would it be too dopey—or awesome—if model trains started popping up in my sculptures?

To see more of Travis's work, please visit travistownsendart.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Recent exhibitions include solo shows I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan) and Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery in Chicago, as well as Here|Now, a two-person exhibition curated by MK Meador and also featuring the work of Jason Uriah White, at Design Cloud in Chicago (2014). Most recently, Stacia created  When Things Fall Apart, a durational, collage installation in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center. Closing reception guests were invited to help break down the piece by pulling pins out of the wall.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Lynn Aldrich

Un/Common Objects
Installation view

LYNN ALDRICH is "seeking a reinvestment in physicality." Her sculptures employ the accumulation and organization of found objects and material—often purchased from Home Depot—to reorient viewers to their experience of their bodies. She transforms the excess of mass production into an opportunity for contemplation of our relationship to consumption and its effect on the natural world. In 2014, Lynn was awarded the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, and her work joined the permanent collection at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. She will debut a major new steel sculpture titled Future Water Feature on July 25, 2015 at Edward Cella Art+Architecture, where her solo exhibition More Light Than Heat will open in October 2015. Lynn is represented by Edward Cella in Los Angeles and Jenkins Johnson Gallery in San Francisco and New York. She lives and works in Los Angeles.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Many of your materials—garden hoses, plastic tubing, rain gutters—reference the flow of water. Could you talk about this recurring metaphor in your work?

Lynn Aldrich: I wanted to use materials that were ordinary, usually part of a middle class life, which is at times overwhelmed by products and options. From this banal bounty, I decided to select only what carried potential for a kind of revelation. Twenty years ago, we were not so concerned with water environmentally, but it has consistently been a powerful and layered metaphor for spiritual and physical renewal. So water-related materials seemed inherently capable of meeting my conceptual criteria. 

Garden hoses, brass ends, fiberglass, steel
60 x 55 x 32 inches

OPP: What other recurring material metaphors do you use?

LA: Other material choices also bear some sort of relationship to my observations of and appreciation for the natural world—light and dark and color in the landscape, flora and fauna diversity, cosmic extravagance. For example, in Constellation, I purchased lampshades in various shapes, fabrics and sizes. They already evoked metaphors associated with wonder and transcendence. The decision to fill each one with a modeled, concave center, painted to reference diverse experiences of light, seemed like a simple, direct means to reveal spiritual mystery already present in these objects.

Light Sucker
Lampshade, wood, modeling compound, gesso, acrylic, oil
20 x 20 x 16 inches

OPP: You employ the strategies of repetition and accumulation in the creation of found object sculptures. Each piece has the potential to go on and on. How do you know when each piece is done? What stops you from expanding these discrete sculptures into immersive environments?

LA: I have a sculptor’s interest in form and differences in scale relating to space. So at a certain point, the quantity of something seems to be appropriate for what the work is intended to accomplish. My artistic choice is to confront, to call the already immersed viewer out of the fog and say, stop, be still, consider this.

For me, the repetition is not about infinity, but about revealing paradoxical truths inherent to physicality – something like the New Testament’s concept of Incarnation. This is the idea that God signifies matter, the “stuff” of creation, as good, by entering history in the flesh (Jesus Christ). Artists continually explore this paradox whether they realize it or not—what is obvious and ordinary also bears worth and meaning beyond its material presence.

Seeking Sanctuary
Corrugated plastic panels, fiberglass, aluminum.
55 x 19 x 68 inches

OPP: In your statement, you refer to a “spiritual or sacred longing for revelation and authentic transcendence” that “is the profound paradox at the core of all true religion and artistic activity.” How do you reconcile that longing with our contemporary consumer society, as represented in your materials?

LA: Actually, it’s not possible to reconcile this longing, this desire beyond desiring, with being in the world – therefore we have art and religion. I am using the word religion in its original, etymological sense as from the same root word for ligament, a tie back to God. What used to be the “bounty of nature,” the extravagance we appreciated as coming from God’s provision, we now believe to be of our own making. I walk through the aisles of Home Depot and see products literally pouring down the sides. But am I in a “garden of delights” or a spiritual wasteland? Or as T. S. Eliot asks, can we experience being in the garden even though we are walking through a desert?

Sponges, brushes, scrubbers, scouring pads, mop heads, plungers, plastic gloves, plumbing parts, wood
42 x 30 x 28 inches

OPP: In 2013, you mounted a mid-career retrospective, curated by Jim Diechendt and Christina Valentine, called Un/Common Objects at Williamson Art Gallery at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. What’s it like to see work spanning two decades exhibited together? Did this lead to any insights about your own work?
LA: I can only say that it was an incredible experience. Bringing the works together (many borrowed back from collectors which I had not seen in years) and arranging them in a beautiful, spacious architecture finally produced the immersive experience you mentioned. The curators allowed a kind of “compare and contrast” placement that brought up interesting analogies I had not seen before.

Shell Collection is a work from the 90s made from T-shirts dipped in resin, in ten successive sizes from newborn to adult. The viewer peers through the waist or neck and sees a kind of infinite tunnel of “shells” implying one’s passage through life and time. Now this work could be experienced next to Wormhole, a huge nesting of fake fur in cardboard tubes made 15 years later—another compelling tunnel into infinity. I thought these connections existed as I made the work over time, but now I would walk through the gallery sometimes when no one was there and give myself a high five!

Fake fur in 10 colors, cardboard construction tubes in 16 diameters, electric light (optional)
4 x 4 x 25 feet

OPP: What role does mystery play in your practice?

LA: My work has a kind of simplicity and stillness that belies the struggle and doubt I often have while making it. For example, in constructing a minimal box out of white, wood pickets titled Subdivision, I began with only one material. I was sure it would end up being white, but at every turn there were decisions to make and problems to solve. How many pickets will reach just the right scale? The points aren’t as sharp as I want, so instead of buying them, do I need to make them myself? How do I put it together and take it apart? The physicality of the thing was wearing me down. I started to doubt it would be anything more than a pile of fencing. But in the end, I felt there was a lovely mystery to the surface of a “community” of pointed wood stakes.

Author, Flannery O’Connor speaks of the necessity for the writer or artist to “maintain a respect for mystery.” We live in a material age where science and technology rule, yet there is a throbbing mystery at the core of existence. It’s the role of artists, poets, students of philosophy and theology to wrestle with this.

To see more of Lynn's work, please visit lynnaldrich.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Recent exhibitions include solo shows I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan) and Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery in Chicago, as well as Here|Now, a two-person exhibition curated by MK Meador and also featuring the work of Jason Uriah White, at Design Cloud in Chicago (2014). Most recently, Stacia created  When Things Fall Apart, a durational, collage installation in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center. Closing reception guests were invited to help break down the piece by pulling pins out of the wall.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Jaclyn Jacunski

Site and Source
Stoneware, porcelain, and plywood
23" x 12" x 42"

JACLYN JACUNSKI has a background in activism and works primarily in printmaking, installation and sculpture. For several years, she's created work in response to the empty lot next to her apartment, exploring the intersection of personal and collective rituals as they manifest in the cityscape. She looks for evidence of gestures of resistance, examining the ways individuals assert claims to public space. Jaclyn earned her BFA from the University of Wisconsin, Madison (1999) and her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2007). In 2013 she was Artist-in-Residence at Spudnik Press (Chicago), where she debuted her solo exhibition Site and Source, and was the Director of the Chicago Printer’s Guild. Since 2013, Jaclyn has worked as a Research Associate at Earl & Brenda Shapiro Center for Research and Collaboration in Chicago, where she lives.

OtherPeoplesPixels: What are some examples of the personal and collective rituals you refer to in your artist statement?

Jaclyn Jacunski: I’m thinking specifically about the realm of the commons and a reciprocal exchange between individuals and their surrounding communities. I am interested in small acts of resistance, defiance, public exclamation and protest. I look for evidence of these types of moments visible in the landscape. It is hard to speak of it so specifically; I love disparate happenings, handmade gestures and signs. I am interested in situations like when people save their shoveled parking spot with a chair in a Chicago snowstorm. Or the way people insert found items— sets of keys, a lonely mitten, or once I saw a black patten leather high-heel shoe—into a chain-link fence in hopes the owner will walk past and find them.

Another example of a compelling social ritual is the sparing match between the City of Chicago and graffiti writers. I find it so strange that an ugly vacant lot tarp would get tagged, and then the City would go as far as finding matching green tarp paint and paint over the graffiti meticulously. Their efforts did not really cover up the tag, but enhanced it into something a bit more elegant and disguised. At the right angle or in the right light, the tag was still incredibly clear despite the new paint job. Yet, this strange left-over gesture seemed to pacify the community’s need to be graffiti-free. My block got heavily bombed almost every night, and I thought, Man, just give the kids a space to write! But I imagine the city workers take a secret pleasure in this painting activity, and everyone has an unique role their community’s public space. 

NO! Site and Source (detail)

OPP: You've been exploring the chain link fence, formally and conceptually, through print, ceramics and installation for several years now. What's fascinating to you about this particular object and all the ideas it contains?

JJ: There was a very specific moment I decided to take on the loaded symbol one day. I was randomly the looking through old German design and architecture magazines at the library. I read a long article about the design of chain link structures and webs in the build environment. I xeroxed the images and paneled them on to my studio wall where they hung for a long time, just as thought.

This ubiquitous object, which I encounter everyday on my walk to work, is complex symbol for a vibrant city with many contradictions. It represents a border between public and private, wealth and poverty. It indicates what is built, vacant and developing. The fence contains its own script for social relations. It acts as a barrier to entry, meant to demarcate zones of ownership or membership. It is to be climbed, torn down, obeyed or defied. In my practice, the fence is a useful tool for production: slicing shapes, forms and material, re-distributing surfaces. It acts as a viewing device with the linear components and negative spaces serving as viewfinders that frame the territory of the other.” The repeat pattern abstracts and re-orients spatially. Its linear repetitions confuse one’s focus, shape-shifting forms. . . the eyes begin to play with objects in space creating new possibilities.

Brick (detail)

OPP: Please describe the process of creating the ceramic piece Brick (2013), in which you make tangible sculptures of empty space. Could you talk about how this gesture relates to the empty lot surrounded by the fence?

JJ: In the work with the bricks, I brought in bags of porcelain clay into vacant lot adjacent to my apartment on a busy Chicago street. In the lot I would systematically pressed the clay through the wire of the fence, using the shape of the negative space to be filled and space the brick with chain link wire cutting the shape. I did this repeatedly for several weeks systematically working up, down and across each open space until I made enough bricks to form a panel. Each brick varies in size, length, shape, color from using different clay along with letting the bricks go in to random community kilns to be fired. Some bricks clearly show my fingers prints and others came out clean and smooth. While doing this I had talks with my neighbors about nothing particular, but it was nice. It was rare that I had opportunity to be outside and talk beyond the basic “how are you” and the all-important Midwest weather talk.

At the time I was thinking a lot about the neglect of things, why places become marginalized and how bricks are part of the Chicago lotscape at demolition sites. The bricks are leftover artifacts of plans, development, investment and creativity. Bricks sit in empty lots leaving evidence of the rapidly transforming character of the neighborhood that became personified by the abandoned lot adjacent to my apartment. Fenced off from the rest of the world, the lot acted as a gathering point for neighbors and a repository of the history of the place. The land lay dormant, awaiting the tide of gentrification that would make constructing condos profitable, but the looming development was always present. The gesture of making bricks was the hope to build anew, laying claim and taking over the space without permission. Making the bricks was an act of considering our productive and cooperative selves moving beyond the typical order that creates and sustains blight.


OPP: I recently saw your work at Comfort Station in Chicago. Tell us about the unexpected occurrence with your indoor/outdoor sculpture Pipeline.

JJ: My sculpture at Comfort Station was made of household ductwork that forms a pipeline. With elements inside and outside of the gallery, it simulated movement through the lawn, down through the concrete and into the gallery, where it came to a halt, hanging from the ceiling, knotted and bound. The metal outside the building was sawed off and stolen about three weeks into the exhibition. (I blame Chicago metal recyclers—jerks!) I was shocked that someone would take a risk of getting caught for something that didn’t have much value. The work was in a highly visible, high traffic, public area.

However, it got me thinking a lot about value. A few bucks were worth more than the public art to whomever stole it. A city planner can never dictate the experiences we have in public spaces, how we value those spaces or how we feel valued in those spaces. It hits home the complications of property in any neighborhood. Logan Square is an interesting example: a private landlord owns the grassy area next to Comfort Station that looks like an open, public park. Before the establishment of the gallery, the grounds were widely used by neighbors for summer picnics, but this use has been in noticeable decline. This highlights the underlying tensions from the changes in the neighborhood. I see these instances as clues that some people are not considered or included, nor do they feel part of this space.


OPP: The sculpture was accompanied by a print take-away. Could you talk about the "populist ethic of print" and why it is the perfect medium to explore the social and political implications of shared space?

JJ: Prints are significant tools for creative resistance and protest. In my twenties, I was involved in a lot activist campaigns. Agitprop was all around me. I appreciate print's wide distribution to the masses and its role in the women’s movement. Posters, zines and flyers are non-precious ways to communicate, to be opinionated and to be powerful.

The take-away newspaper is also called Pipeline and was placed a pile on the gallery floor for visitors. It juxtaposes collaged internet images of pipelines with people waiting in line to question what is the perceived agency of the community in their neighborhood. I used media images of the lines to build and draw meandering forms in order to play with ideas of drawing, but also to respond to what seems to be years of daily news reports on the Keystone Pipeline. I was really intrigued by one report in particular by an Alberta artist, Peter von Tiesenhausen, who stopped oil corporations from putting a pipeline through his 800 acre property by copyrighting the top six inches of his land as a work of art.

I love every aspect of the field of print: the materiality, its process, history, tools, strategies and concepts. I especially love the versatile way print can exist in the art world and public spaces. Felix Gonzales Torres' work has been such an inspiration to me. I've put his silver posters in my office, his skyscapes in my studio and his candy in my pockets. I would think about him and Ross long after I left the exhibition. I love that I can give art away for free, share my questions and promote my point of view in both serious and playful ways which can extend beyond an exhibition. The flexibility of print allows a viewer to look at my work later, then pass it on. It all seems like a fair equitable exchange in the commons of ideas.

To see more of Jaclyn's work, please visit jaclynjacunski.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Recent exhibitions include solo shows I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan) and Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery in Chicago, as well as Here|Now, a two-person exhibition curated by MK Meador and also featuring the work of Jason Uriah White, at Design Cloud in Chicago (2014). Most recently, Stacia created  When Things Fall Apart, a durational, collage installation in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center. Closing reception guests were invited to help break down the piece by pulling pins out of the wall.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Everest Hall

Untitled (Crystal Skull 3)
Oil on panel
11" X 14"

EVEREST HALL oscillates between flatness and linear perspective in paintings that merge still-life and geometric abstraction with photographic sources, sometimes combining them all in a single piece. Skulls made from semi-precious stones, snakes, candles, flowers, shells, moons and patterned wallpaper all make repeated appearances, referencing Dutch and Spanish Vanitas painting and revealing the intersection of the personal and the art historical. Everest earned his B.F.A. in 1996 from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and his M.F.A. in 1998 from Yale University School of Art. His numerous solo exhibitions include shows at Bellwether Gallery (2006) in New York, Richard Gray Gallery (2010) in Chicago and Dunham Place Salon (2010) in New York. From September 26, 2015 to January 10, 2016, his work will be included in Prime Matter, a drawing show at the Teckningmuseet in Lahom Sweden. Everest lives and works in New York City.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Earlier paintings, such as Untitled (Crystal Skull) (2006), resemble traditional Memento Mori or Vanitas paintings. But more recently, the perspective and the space in paintings with these repeated visual motifs has changed. How does the flattened space relate to themes of mortality and death?

Everest Hall: Subject matter is very important to me, but style and technique are only a means to an end. I choose objects like coins, crystal skulls, shells and candles that have both art historic and personal symbolism. For example, the crystal skull is important to me because it belongs to my mother. She is Mayan Indian, born in Central America and a well-respected healer. When I paint the crystal skull, I am connecting to my family heritage—with all its loaded meanings—and to the history of painting, especially Dutch and Spanish Vanitas paintings.

The shift towards a more flattened space with bigger color as in the painting Tides (2011) happened fairly organically through experimentation and allowing the painting to take its own path. I don't think it has anything more or less to do with death and mortality than the silk drapery used in the earlier pieces. Both styles of painting serve the same purpose in the world I am building: to fill space, create an atmosphere and distract from the focal point. Because I am rendering less in the newer works, I needed to push the flatness to create an reality equivalent to the classical perspective.

Untitled (Fly)
Oil on panel
12" X 16"

OPP: Will you pick a painting and reveal the personal narrative to us?

EH: The painting Untitled (fly) from 2006 is a good example. It was early spring in New York, and I was living in a small apartment in Washington Heights. My studio was in a tiny bedroom with a window that overlooked the building’s garbage. A small house fly flew up from the dumpster below and got caught in my studio. Without much thought I smashed the young fly dead. At the time I felt really bad because killing it seemed cruel and unnecessary. It was not very difficult for me to relate to the fly with its fragility and primitive nature. I felt like a little bug at the time, trying to scrape out an existence with powerful uncaring forces swatting me around. So I built a tomb for it out of paint taking great care to articulate its husk of body and lack of vitality. The fly is accompanied by other corpses that I had collected during my morning walks with my dog: an interesting leaf blown down by the wind from a high branch, a snail shell from the park and a discarded scallop shell from an intimate dinner. Like the fly, these husks seemed so noble and elemental. The sea, the earth and the air all gathered together to bear witness to the smallest of deaths.

Pink Flair
Oil on canvas
72" x 60"

OPP: Several works from 2010—Lake of Dreams, Ocean of Storms, Sun and Sea of Nectar, to name just a few— are oil paintings of the backs of canvases with overlaid, geometrical gestures. You've also addressed the canvas back in mixed media works from 2011 like Bouquet and Roses. What led you to this work?

EH: I came to these paintings in a curious way. One day I caught my self staring at a painting for a very long time. It was so long, in fact, I lost my footing in the world and could no longer see the painting at all. I only saw the daydream that my mind had led me to. The force of my stare dissolved the painting’s surface, the stretcher bars, the wall behind it and the very structure of the object into nothing. These back of the canvas paintings are physical manifestations of this experience: meditative force and cubist space captured in a trompe l'oeil. Many of these back of the canvas paintings were intended to be show with images of the moon and flowers. I saw the voids described by the gestural marks and geometry as equivalent to what might be on the front of the canvas.

Oil on canvas

OPP: Could you talk about your shift away from using found photos as source material for your paintings as a result of Jerry Saltz's 2004 essay "The Richter Resolution?" Looking back now, what are your thoughts on this essay and how it influenced your practice?

EH: This is a big story for me, a turning point in my career. I was a young impressionable artist at the time and wanted desperately to be someone. I worked very hard to impress my young Brooklyn gallery and hoped to carve out a name for myself. I was doing well for a while. . . until "The Richter Resolution" came out. My dealer at the time told me the article was about me, and my career was in big trouble and I should fix it fast. I dumped the photos and dove head first into the most uncool genre I could imagine—still life. I dug deep and really owned it and made many great paintings. Eleven years later, I still work in still life more or less. . . photos are at play, but so is everything now. Thinking back, it was a good change, but I was very damaged by my dealer’s interest in the bottom line.

OPP: I think that experience would be challenging for most artists. How do you go about balancing that bottom line with your artistic development now?

EV: The answer is easy. . . I got a day job and rely on that money instead of art sales to live. Because I am self-sufficient outside of the art market, I really don't care what people think anymore about what I do or how I do it. I make paintings that I want to see, not what a gallery, critic or collector is expecting or wanting. This is a much better way of living for me, and the work has really benefited from this attitude. I exhibit fairly regularly and really enjoy people seeing what I make.

Invisible Object
Oil on panel
20" X 16"
I was so poor and desperate at the time I made this painting. I intended this painting to be a battery that would generate money and success.

OPP: And now a practical website question: could you talk about your choice to mix up all your works on your website as opposed to putting them in chronological order? It seems like an intentional choice that most artists don't make on their websites. Is this a conceptual choice?

EH: Well.... I get mixed reviews about my the jumbled format. Some people really hate it; some people like it. But I’m not really interested in the site being an archive of my development or a tool for business. It’s more of a memoir. I play with it a lot, changing formats, adding works and removing them and juxtaposing images to highlight the similarities and differences. I add to the conversation by offering personal anecdotes and information on individual works.

All of the looking back and rearranging has renewed my interest in some of my older ideas. Now I find myself mixing photography and abstraction with still lives. Nothing is off limits now. I just experiment with seeing what is possible. I have a new section in the website called Studio where I have recent images of in-progress works. I'm a bit of a slow painter, so this section is a good way of showing new work, even when I know I won’t complete it for a few months or possibly even years.

To see more of Everest's work, please visit everesthall.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Recent exhibitions include solo shows I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan) and Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery in Chicago, as well as Here|Now, a two-person exhibition curated by MK Meador and also featuring the work of Jason Uriah White, at Design Cloud in Chicago (2014). Most recently, Stacia created  When Things Fall Apart, a durational, collage installation in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center. Closing reception guests were invited to help break down the piece by pulling pins out of the wall.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Andréa Keys Connell

The Pursuit of Hercules (detail)
Clay, paint, gold luster, wooden canoe
11'x 30'x 12'

ANDRÉA KEYS CONNELL's slightly-larger-than-life ceramic figures are monuments to human vulnerability. Exhibited in groups, they nonetheless appear isolated and longing for help. . . or possibly connection. Their dense, fragmented bodies, drooping heads and extended arms poignantly register the weight of the world. Andréa earned her BFA in 2002 from Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore and her MFA in 2009 from Ohio University in Athens. Solo exhibitions include Un-Home-Like (2010) at The Sculpture Center in Cleveland, Gently Down the Stream (2012) at The Clay Studio in Philadelphia and Being With, exhibited at Maramec Contemporary Gallery (2014) in Saint Louis and the Ivan Wilson Fine Arts Center (2015) at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Andréa lives in Richmond, Virginia, where she works as an Assistant Professor and Clay Area Head in the Department of Craft/Material Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Tell us a little about your sculpting process and your choice of ceramics as your medium.

Andréa Keys Connell: I had my "coming to clay" moment when I was a junior in college. Prior to that, I was focusing primarily on painting and photography. When I found clay, a connection between my brain, heart and hands clicked on, and I never left the clay studio. When I think about it now it makes a lot of sense. My mother collected Majolica, Zsnolnay and Herend. When I was little, I played with the figurines as though they were dolls. When she would catch me, she would take them and place them back on their shelves, reminding me of their preciousness. Their "preciousness" only made them more valuable to me and the narratives that I would impose on them.
I think I am also just more of a three-dimensional thinker when it comes to making. It was such a relief to me when I found clay. . . to be able to discover a form through the ability to touch it in the round. It is such a physical relationship, and when making life size or larger figures, I find myself hugging and pressing up against, pushing and pulling on the clay. All of this contact is imprinted on the surface of the clay. . . it's a pretty delicious way of making!

I build my pieces hollow, moving between coils, slabs and pinching. Building hollow provides me with the ability to form my figures by pressing from the inside. This feels very natural to me in thinking about the body: the skin/clay is shaped by what is beneath it. In this case, it is the internal pressure that I am using to shape the skin. There is an endless supply of metaphors in this way of making and representing the figure.


OPP: There are a lot of disembodied heads, arms and legs in your work. In installations like Un-Home-Like (2010) and The Pursuit of Hercules (2011), the partial figures read as adrift, drowning or swimming in a floor made of water. But the isolated heads and torsos from Gently Down the Stream (2012) don't read that way at all. They seem more severed. How are these figures different?

AKC: I thought of the figures in Gently Down the Stream as being submerged, like in a swamp, stuck in time and certainly fractured. I was also looking at a lot of photojournalism during the making of this installation and thinking about the fragmentation inherent in a photograph: the physical fragmentation of the frame and the emotional fragmentation as the person looking in on the moment captured.

OPP: There’s another metaphor! I often think that way, too, about processes I use in my own work, but I’ve found that not all viewers think that way about the objects in front of them. How often do viewers comprehend the metaphors that you see naturally as part of the process? If they don’t think metaphorically, are they missing the point?

AKC: Hmmm. . . I don't know if they would be missing the point because I am totally open to individual interpretation. I would never expect someone to see or think about things the way that I do, but I do hope that the essence of the content is felt. For example, if a person views a leg sticking out of the floor as a glimpse of a part of a whole body or a broken section of the body, the idea of fragmentation still exists in both interpretations. Whether metaphorical and literal, each read carries similar anxieties. I think of my content as a means for making an image, and that image has endless ways of being interpreted. I guess you could say that my content development is more a part of the process. I have never made a piece and I felt strongly, "THIS is what I want the viewer to take from this piece." Viewers tend to try to relate to my work in a humanistic way; they bring their own individual experiences to their interpretation of my figures.

Gently Down the Stream
Clay, paint, cardboard boxes
12'x 13'x 30'

OPP: Your figures, which seem to be either young children or old adults, are generally slightly larger than life size and sometimes out of proportion. How do scale and age intersect in your work?

AKC: I work very deliberately to blur the lines of gender, age and time. In a sense, I am attempting to create an internal portrait, and I don't believe in gender or age or even time when confronting the inside. I watch people a lot, and I think about how we carry ourselves. You can read a lot about a person in their body. These are all observations that I take to studio and at times exaggerate.

Much of  my research is preoccupied with how the perception of objects can either represent or obscure complex social realities. The Hummel figurine is an example of such a visual trigger that I have used throughout my work. The Hummel began production in Germany in 1935, the same year the Nuremburg Laws were passed. Though production ceased during WWII, it immediately picked up at the end of the war. The popularity of Hummel figurines grew as American soldiers stationed in West Germany began sending the figurines home to their loved ones as gifts to ease the anxieties of those who awaited the soldiers safe return home. Hummel figurines ultimately became an emblem of a pastoral, healthy and safe Germany. In my early work, the youthful chubby cheeks of the Hummel have been stretch and deflated, and the healthy round bellies have become distended and heavy. This is all a result of the internal pressure that I am using to form the figures. By manipulating the pastoral qualities of the Hummel and by incorporating realistic human features such as defined fingernails and lips and a very intentional gaze, I seek to represent a more complex social narrative than exists in the original figurines.

Un-Home-Like (detail)
Stoneware, house paint, wooden cabinet
5.5'x 12'x 10'

Up through 2012, whole bodies of work were monochromatic, not just individual pieces. Why was monochrome the right decision for earlier bodies of work like (dis)Placement (2009) and Un-Home-Like (2010)? What led you to pursue a more accurate rendering of color in recent work like Then the Wind Blew... (2015), and several works from Being With (2014)?

AKC: The monochromatic work was often trying to represent the look of wet clay, such as in (dis)Placement, Gently Down the Stream, and The Pursuit of Hercules. (dis)Placement was specifically referencing terracotta because the original Hummel was sculpted out of terracotta, then a mold would be made and it would be cast in porcelain. For that piece, I was interested in the idea of the discarded. Essentially, I wanted the pieces to refer to malleability.

In Un-Home-Like, the pieces actually have house paint that I had mixed based on the primary colors used in Delacroix's painting The Barque of Dante. I made washes of these colors and dripped them in many layers over the figures. Being With and Francis were painted with oil paints. I was looking at a lot of religious statuary, particularly 17th -18th century wooden saint statues. I loved the look of them and was making pretty specific references to them in these pieces, so I just went for it. And Then the Wind Blew is essentially a giant figurine and I wanted it to look like that, so I glazed it. 

Being With

OPP: I love the cardboard boxes as both pedestals and containers in Being With (2014) and Gently Down the Stream (2012). They seem to add to the feeling of despondency in the figures. What led to this decision?

AKC: You got a lot of the references right. They are pedestals and containers. I also wanted these very heavy ceramic figures to appear simultaneously lighter than they are and on a precarious edge, which can be quite unsettling when standing in front of them. The figures stand at a slight lean, and they really tower of over you. There is the feeling that they could collapse at any moment. I think this lends to their own vulnerability, which also points to the viewers vulnerability by being in their presence. They are referencing monuments, but they are quite pathetic in their structure. They are trying really hard, but pointing very clearly to their own weakness.

OPP: Could you talk more about why you choose to represent vulnerability in your sculptures and elicit vulnerability in the viewer key? Would you say this is the key theme that runs through all your work?

AKC: I think that is a really good observation, and I don't know if I totally realized the presence of vulnerability in pretty much everything that I make. What a great thing to see—thank you!

I do think about vulnerability often, perhaps because I feel it so often. There can be so much beauty and destruction in vulnerability, and to open oneself up to another requires so much trust. My interest in that kind of vulnerability runs parallel to my persistent thoughts around responsibility to one another. I am always concerned with the ripple effect of actions, the necessity of vulnerability, and the responsibility involved in the awareness of another person's vulnerability.

To see more of Andréa's work, please visit andreakeys.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Recent exhibitions include solo shows I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan) and Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery in Chicago, as well as Here|Now, a two-person exhibition curated by MK Meador and also featuring the work of Jason Uriah White, at Design Cloud in Chicago (2014). Most recently, Stacia created  When Things Fall Apart, a durational, collage installation in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center. Closing reception guests were invited to help break down the piece by pulling pins out of the wall.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Jonny Green

Don't Let Our Youth Go To Waste

JONNY GREEN’s meticulously-rendered paintings of slapdash sculptures merge still life and portraiture. The crude, tiny objects—built from plasticine, ribbons, electrical tape, screws and mismatched clock parts—further his exploration of the human experience of smallness in the face of disaster, loss and uncertainty by portraying these flawed creations with unabashed dignity. Jonny earned his B.A. from Norwich School of Art in 1989 and his M.A. from Royal College of Art in 1991. He has exhibited widely throughout the United Kingdom. Most recently, his work was included in the juried exhibition Contemporary Visions V (2015) at Beers Contemporary and in Saatchi’s  New  Sensations  and  The  Future  Can  Wait (2014) at Victoria  House in  London. In 2013, Jonny was shortlisted for the prestigious Threadneedle Prize. You can see his work until May 8, 2015 in Still Life: Ambiguous Practices, curated by Frances Woodley, at the Aberystwyth University Galleries in Wales. His work will also be included in Distorted Vision, the inaugural exhibition at The Dot Project in London, where Jonny lives and works.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Past works have focused on disaster scenes, masquerading as landscape and influenced by famous paintings from art history. Carpark of Earthly Delights (2012), for example, references Hieronymus Bosch's masterwork from the 15th century, and many works are reminiscent of Albert Bierstadt, not just Dead Lake (After Bierstadt) (2012). Are these natural or man-made disasters?

Jonny Green: Both. That series of works began in 2008, right after the big financial crash. My studio at the time faced onto Canary Wharf, one of London's financial centers. I was listening to the news reports of the panic and looking out onto the bank buildings. That particular atmosphere of shock and fear are what triggered and informed those paintings. I started looking at the apocalyptic works of people like John Martin with their strong sense of human smallness, something his work shares with the Hudson River Group, particularly Bierstadt. What interested me in particular was the notion that the whole thing was a fabrication, Bierstadt's visions of the Rockies are exaggerated and romanticized in order to instill awe in the audience. It's very Hollywood. So in my paintings of that period, people are reverting to primitive states within these apocalyptic environments, making peace with their gods, seeking absolution or having sex.

The Cleansing
Oil on linen
136 x 200 cm

OPP: The Oil Cloud Series (2012-2013) isolates the colored smoke/clouds from the disaster landscapes. You give the amorphous forms personality by giving them human names, referring to the convention of naming hurricanes. Beryl and Alberto, both hurricanes from 2012, even have eyes, further supporting the personification of natural disasters. What else can you tell us about your intentions with this series?

JG: This series is an ongoing one actually. I've recently made a couple more of them. I'd been looking at a lot of archival photographs of early ecological and industrial disasters. I found a series of daguerreotypes of fires in early oil fields and began to use them as a very loose source material for that group of paintings.

At the same time I’d been researching the convention of attaching human names to hurricanes, which has its beginnings in the Caribbean hundreds of years ago. Storms were initially named after the saint of the day the hurricane occurred on from Roman Catholic Liturgical calendar. I felt that it was a symptom of our need as humans to anthropomorphize the things that we don't understand or that frighten us. We have a habit of seeing faces or consciousness in almost anything. It's an evolutionary throwback that’s still pertinent to our survival.

Oil on linen
68 x 61 cm

OPP: Now let's turn to your most recent paintings of haphazardly-made sculptures. These are part portrait, part still life. What led to this shift in your work?

JG: I'd had to take a break from the painting studio for family reasons and leave London for a few weeks. I was staying with my  family in Yorkshire in the North east of England. Unable to paint, I found a box of filthy old plasticine from my childhood and began modeling with it late at night when everyone else had gone to bed. I then photographed these weird little objects, using the materials available to me, i.e. kitchen towels as a backdrop, an old lamp as the only lighting. I was surprised by the power of the images and decided to try and make paintings from them on my return. I think the reason they worked is that I have absolutely no personal investment in sculpture as a practice, which allowed me to be completely free and open with their construction in a way that is perhaps impossible for me with painting.

I really just free-associate and slap things together. Their flaws and lack of artistry are what makes them interesting to me. This is completely at odds with the process of photographing and painting them, which is really painstaking. I think every artist is looking for a process for making their work that suits their temperament. It's a surprisingly difficult thing to find, but this combination of carefree and painstaking works for me.

The First Cut Is The Deepest
Oil on canvas on board
88 x 122 centimeters

OPP: The tendency to anthropomorphize and our neurologically-wired habit of seeing faces is of course also at play in this body of work. All this has got me thinking about the human brain, which is a recurring motif in the sculpture paintings. How do you think about the brains in pieces like Tipping Point (2014) and Fracaso (2013)?

JG: I think about the brains as characters just like the sculptures that are more suggestive of human beings. A couple of years back I'd gone to visit my father in hospital. He had pneumonia and was also being treated for a particularly aggressive water infection. Although temporary, the change in his behaviour was dramatic. His memory had gone, and he had lost all sense of time and place. He was extremely confused. On speaking to the doctors, we found out that the infection was the cause of this. It was bewildering to me at the time that something so minor as a urine infection could cause such a change in personality, and I began to investigate the condition. I began thinking about the brain as this fragile, sensitive jelly-like entity, that contains everything about a person. The rest is just dressing.

OPP: Have you ever considered exhibiting the sculptures themselves?

JG: Not so far, but I wouldn't rule it out for the future. I don't think they work as they are largely because I work on them from one angle. I’m looking for an image to paint so I rarely consider what the back, top or bottom looks like. It might be quite interesting to play with the scale of them, to make them human-sized for instance, which would be quite a challenge technically as most of them are only a couple of inches tall.

White Wedding
Oil on canvas on board

OPP: Some of the paintings are not large at all—Romeo (2014) is 21 x 16.6 centimeters and Grand Mal (2014) is 21 x 17 centimeters—while others shift the scale of the sculptures dramatically. Babel (2013) is 145 x 122 centimeters and Agitant (2013) is 122 x 153 centimeters.

JG: Making choices about scale is largely intuitive. Sometimes I get it wrong the first time around. For example, The Rt Hon started off as one of the really small paintings. When it was complete, I realized that it didn't resonate the way I'd hoped and needed to be substantially bigger.

There is something about the nature of little objects—their abject and pathetic demeanor, the fact that they appear to be trying to validate their existence with flowers and the draping of ribbons—that drives me to give them a voice, assert their rights. I’m aware that there is something ridiculous about the notion of asserting human rights for a lump of dirty old plasticine, but it's that anthropomorphism that makes them more than bits of old rubbish.

To see more of Jonny's work, please visit jonnygreen.net.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Recent exhibitions include solo shows I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan) and Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery in Chicago, as well as Here|Now, a two-person exhibition curated by MK Meador and also featuring the work of Jason Uriah White, at Design Cloud in Chicago (2014). Most recently, Stacia created  When Things Fall Apart, a durational, collage installation in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center. Closing reception guests were invited to help break down the piece by pulling pins out of the wall.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Amy Santoferraro

B.B. Baskets

Trained in Ceramics, AMY SANTOFERRARO applies the spirit of that medium, which she says is "best at masquerading as other things," to whatever materials attract her attention: plastic, pool noodles, wood aluminum, foam. Her own inclination to collect informs her work in a variety of media as she tackles the themes of nostalgia, attachment, desire, value and imitation. Amy has a Bachelors of Arts Education and a Bachelors of Fine Art from The Ohio State University (1998-2004). She earned her Masters of Fine Art in Ceramics from Alfred University in 2012. She has had solo exhibitions at The Clay Studio (2009) in Philadelphia, c.r.e.t.a. rome (2013) in Italy and Add to Basket will open at MudFire in Decatur, Georgia in May 2015. She is a 2015 Spring McKnight Resident Artist at Northern Clay Center in Minneapolis and will give a lecture on her work on Tuesday, April 21, 2015 at 6:30 pm in NCC’s Library. Amy teaches Ceramics at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, where she lives.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Ceramics as a medium is intimately connected to the history of the vessel, which is really the history of human progress. I'd like to hear you muse on vessels in general, in ceramics, in your life or in your practice.

Amy Santoferraro: At the risk of sounding like Miley Cyrus. . . vessels hold stuff, and stuff makes up our world. The vessel strongly influences my work because my practice revolves around ideas of collection and the questioning of value and sentiments associated with stuff we choose to surround ourselves with.
The vessel was my first entry into ceramics. I fell in love with creating a useful object that had a built-in guideline: if it holds water and you can drink out of it, you have succeeded! The cup remains present in my practice as a way to get the work out of the studio and into hands. I always make a “take away” or a smaller more practical, more attainable object that represents the larger work but can fit in your hand or not break your wallet.

One of my grad students recently reminded me of possibly the first use of clay to form a vessel, in which woven baskets were lined with clay to transport water from stream to home. In the BaskeTREE series I like to believe that I am quite literally flipping that idea on its head. Vintage and modern day baskets have been translated into plastic and flipped upside down to hold the now all-important junk we need for survival. . . more plastic relics of our existence.

Although I am reluctant to admit it, I am very thankful for Peter Voulkus, who was the first ceramist to buck the system and have his way with the vessel. He fought this battle 60 years ago and his work represents a sustained victory for all ceramists. Now we can both embrace and reject the idea of the vessel. That said, there is nothing sadder than an ironic teapot, but nothing quite as ballsy as a not-pot in contemporary ceramics (of course there are fantastic exceptions to this idea).

Blue/White Ware

OPP: The B.B. Baskets are so seductive. I like the malleability of those simple orbs. They can be so many things: marbles, berries, bubbles. What are they for you? Are the baskets themselves found ceramics?

AS: You nailed it! Sometimes the balls are just balls. But they are also bubbles, fruit, wishes, vomit, bubbling crud, excuses. . . pretty much anything that can build up to be overwhelming, disgusting and/or beautiful. The found baskets in this series fulfill my need to collect evidence of ceramics doing what it does best: masquerading as other objects and materials. One thing mimicking another due to nostalgia or sentiment rather than function or design, or skeuomorphism, is a huge part of my work and practice. I like to think of it as "materials behaving badly." The materials or objects at home depot, the thrift store, or in my studio are kinda like Girls Gone Wild: they reveal too much, are too fake and are too cheap. The B.B Baskets are an ongoing quest; I am always on the look out for small ceramic baskets and new B.B. colors.


OPP: What inspired this series?

AS: They started innocently enough as just airsoft BBs in a basket. My home is across a valley from Fort Riley, Kansas. The Kansas landscape mimics that of Afghanistan and Iraq in color and flatness, making it an ideal training ground for soldiers at the Army base before they head off to war. Everyday I hear and feel the rounds of firing and bombing practice while watching the neighborhood kids shoot each other with BB guns in the convenient overgrown bush hides of my yard. It is quite possibly the most surreal thing I have ever repeatedly experienced.  

I started collecting the BBs the kids left in the yard without any clear direction other than picking up and collecting the beautiful balls of color. The collection grew as the days passed, and I gradually began seeing them as material. I love that they can be so many things and don’t readily volunteer their origin story. It’s not essential to appreciate the resulting object and in no way is a statement about war or only a personal narrative.

2012 MFA Thesis Exhibition at Alfred University feels like a well-designed, but nonfunctional playground. Tell us about how you conceived of and developed this project?

AS: Again nailed it! I was thinking a lot about yards (which is now kinda wild considering the above story was two years after my thesis exhibition). Yards act as an outward expression to the world about the people who maintain them. Many of the objects featured it the exhibition are my recreation of objects you might find in yards: mailboxes, bunny hutches, decorative wagon wheels, that old camper that won’t travel and festive displays of unnecessary motion and lights.  

OPP: What about your inclusion of non-ceramic materials?

AS: Ceramics is never the only solution. My relationship with the material is best described as complicated or open. At times I am in love with it and am exclusive, but far too often I am lured by other materials because they are so very different and will never offer what clay or the ceramic surface can. In many cases I reconcile my devotion to the material because it’s what I know best and can cheaply and effectively manipulate it to work for me. There was a great fear before grad school of wasting or ruining rare, vintage, limited or oddly sourced materials because they are the complete opposite of clay, which is cheap and plentiful. This exhibition was the first time that I let those old hang-ups go. Nothing is precious in ceramics; breakages and surprises are plenty. I have found the same to be true with other materials. Bendy straws can be unbent. My sensitivity and ability to fearlessly adopt any material is a result of embracing the heavily process-oriented nuances that ceramics demand and my unwavering curiosity and desire to make everything work for me. I’m a boss.

plop block

OPP: BaskeTREE (2012) is a series of bonsai-like sculptures in bright, luscious colors. Each one seems to be a mini monument to visual pleasure. Have you ever cultivated an actual bonsai tree? How is your practice like this ancient Japanese practice?

AS: BaskeTREEs are personal landscapes. I think of them as executive desk attire and hope that they may replace mini zen gardens, finger labyrinths or those clanky ball thingies. BaskeTREEs are maintenance free houseplants but can still die. They are the longing for something to care for but not really. I am an avid succulent keeper and realize it’s easy. Bonsai might be next, but it’s a big commitment, like owning a parrot that could possibly outlive you. I am currently the heir apparent to an African Grey parrot.
BaskeTREEs are marketed and sold separately as floral arrangements. They are temporal in nature because they employ a wide variety of delicate and non-archival materials (Will floam ever die? Maybe it’ll lose its clumping quality over time. Who knows?) By using plastic, ceramic, aluminum, foam, and a variety of other materials interchangeably, I represent our disregarded and discarded junk as carefully organized and reconsidered, encouraging the celebration and questioning of a possible shelf life attached to an item for sale in a gallery. Acceptance, recognition, imitation and appropriation of these gleaned objects and materials allow a new identity to develop, a new sentiment that is a nod to the past, a charge to the future and highlights our need and affection for objects and materials. It is no coincidence that I lean towards stuff of little to no value. I beg these materials to acknowledge and engage their own artificiality and actively retain a bit of apathy in their new debut.


OPP: I love what you say in your artist statement about collections: "Collections are spectacularly selfish satisfactions that are classless and limitless. Rich, snooty museum collectors in search of obscure works of art and unemployed QVC shoppers looking for one more crystal unicorn are essentially doing the same thing as me; strategically collecting objects to organize and make sense of our surroundings through interactions with the material world." I couldn't agree more. Why do you think our society primarily raises the first up as valuable and denigrates the second as wasteful?

AS: Oh man, this is a big one to tackle. I think it really comes down to the fact that money trumps feelings. Or maybe that money is measurable and feelings are not. I came a cross a beautiful passage The Sportsman’s Complete Book of Trophy and Meat Care as a young artist, and it has shaped how I think about the questionable value of objects and feelings.

"Men collect all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons. Some dote on fine art because they have developed a very special hunger for beauty that can be satisfied only by being around or by owning, great pictures. Others collect the very same pictures purely as a financial investment. Paintings, sculpture, artifacts and all manner of other items in limited supply (some of which make a reasonable man shake his head and retire to a corner to contemplate) have been used as currency hedges in recent years.

The point, rather, is that when you actually lay it out and analyze it, practically all of our most commonly accepted collecting hobbies have less reason than that of trophy collecting by the hunter or fisherman. That’s because the sportsman is commemorating a very special moment. . .”
(Tom Brakefield, The Sportsman’s Complete Book of Trophy and Meat Care)


OPP: Do you remember your first collection? Do you have a collection that has nothing to do with your art-practice?

AS: My first collection was "shoe poison," better known as gel silica packets. I kept records of each pair of shoes that helped contribute to my coveted collection of gel silica. Diagrams, dates of purchase, sizes, colors and materials were all meticulously cataloged. Only my best friends were invited into my top-secret laboratory/closet to view it and hear of my somewhat sinister plans to poison bad guys.  

I keep a couples collection, but only add to it when I'm in a relationship. I collect ceramic dogs, but only if they are black, white or a combination of both. I collect commemorative plates, but only if they are already outfitted with a hanging device. Every collection has a caveat otherwise it'd be completely out of control. Carefully chosen and organized collecting lets me believe that I am a collector and not a hoarder.

To see more of Amy's work, please visit amysantoferraro.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Recent exhibitions include solo shows I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan) and Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery in Chicago, as well as Here|Now, a two-person exhibition curated by MK Meador and also featuring the work of Jason Uriah White, at Design Cloud in Chicago (2014). Most recently, Stacia created  When Things Fall Apart, a durational, collage installation in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center. Closing reception guests were invited to help break down the piece by pulling pins out of the wall.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Leslie Bell

Cosmic Wall-Les Territoires (installation view)
Water-based paint, chalk and pen on Mylar, paper and wood cut-outs
8' x 40'

LESLIE BELL's immersive, colorful collage installations hover in the threshold between abstraction and representation. The organic, rhizomatic lines evoke explosions, sea life and planetary movement, but formal decisions are often influenced more by materiality than imagery. Leslie received her BFA from Alberta College of Art & Design in 2002 and completed her MFA in Painting and Drawing at Concordia University, Montreal in 2009. In 2008, she attended the Cosmic Ray Research residency at The Banff Centre, and has been the recipient of numerous project grants from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts (2008, 2010 and 2011). Leslie's stop-motion animations of water-based paint over back-lit glass have been screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival (2013) in Australia and the Rendezvous with Madness Film Festival (2014) in Toronto, among others. She has exhibited widely throughout Canada, including solo shows at Skew Gallery (2011) and SQ Commons (2013), both in Calgary, where Leslie lives and works.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Are your collage installations pure abstractions? What visually influences you in the creation of these works?

Leslie Bell: These collages, composed of over a hundred paper and paint-on-Mylar cutouts, were developed from two different directions. The paper shapes are made by tracing projected photographs of trees, plants and fireworks explosions as contour line drawings and then cutting them out by hand with an X-acto knife. This process is a holdover from older works. In undergrad, I was primarily a landscape painter who worked from image references that I projected and traced. When I switched to abstraction, I incorporated these contour drawings into the layering of the paintings and later into stand-alone drawings on paper. Over the years I have shot hundreds of photographs on hiking excursions in British Columbia, on holidays in Europe and of my own houseplants. These photos are now my source materials for the white paper collage pieces that are a direct development from this early abstract work.

The paint-on-Mylar shapes fall under the category of pure abstraction. The material conditions, rather than any outside images, dictate the formal language, but those abstractions sometimes lead me to think about sea-life, mucous and cellular organisms, which in turn influences the work. I work on the floor, pouring out puddles of FW ink and acrylic paint and allowing them to blend and mix as they dry. Saturated puddles of ink on Mylar dry in a particularly interesting incremental way, leaving thick lines and edges and creating smaller shapes within the form. I started out making jellyfish-like shapes, and I embraced the way folds in the plastic or uneven floors would allow "tumors" or new "limbs" to sprout overnight. With jellyfish in mind, I considered giving the shapes "tentacles" and then began to incorporate gestural lines of paint, mirroring the action of a swinging wrist and arm into the shapes as outcroppings. From there, the shapes made me think of the mind maps I draw in my sketchbook composed of circled text and lines, as well as strings of sap or snot, so I began adding intricacy to the forms by making multiple puddles of paint or "nebulae" connected by swooping and drooping swaths of lines made with large flat brushes. The frosted Mylar I use comes on four-feet wide rolls, so I would make larger shapes by stretching the "snot strings" lengthwise. At a certain point I became fascinated by the texture that can be created by splashing and dripping concentrated ink into the puddles with an eyedropper—it looked like leopard spots to me—and I went through a whole period of making "leopard amoebas."

Cosmic Wall-Banff (detail)
Water-based paint, chalk and pen on Mylar, paper and wood cut-outs
8' x 20'

OPP: What first led to the shift from painting to installation?

LB: I first started the Cosmic Collage in 2008; my goal was to solve a problem in my painting practice. At the time, I was really into the work of Julie Mehrutu, Matthew Ritchie, Dil Hildbrand and Melanie Authier, and I was struggling to emulate their work. I sought a level of layered complexity that just wasn't happening in my paintings. It occurred to me that pre-planning the compositions through collage might achieve the level of intricacy and layering I was looking for.

My work took on an unpredicted trajectory. The collage itself became a satisfying, exciting, fully-realized body of work. New material explorations changed the aesthetic, and I began to consider installation and space. But I always kept my original goal in mind. Over the next year or two, I poked away at some paintings, working from the photo documentation I took of the first collage-installations at The Banff Centre and Galleries Les-Territoires. Thinking of my favourite painters, I switched to oil paint for these studies and began from some simple questions: canvas or birch panel? Paint loosely or photo-realistically? Masking tape hard-edges: yes or no? I considered these initial studies to be failures up until SIM 1 when something "clicked" aesthetically.

Pith 4
Oil on birch panel
48" x 60"

OPP: Could you talk about the intersection of dimensionality and flatness in Simulation Series (2014)?

LB: The paintings from Simulation Series are essentially photo-representational paintings of abstract source material. I place two-dimensional forms into three-dimensional systems, photograph them and then paint the resulting abstraction with the same representational techniques that I developed when I painted from life and landscape. I love the idea that the viewer can recognize and appreciate the tropes of traditional, representational painting, including cast light and shadow, colour value and focal depth, while the subject is unrecognizable: I’m literally simulating abstraction.

With my earlier abstract paintings, any sense of flatness or space was an unintentional byproduct of trying to develop an abstract aesthetic through a combination painting and drawing while being unsure of my direction. I was trying to achieve a virtual space through a mental process without any real reference points. But with the Simulation Series, which references Baudrillard's notions of hyperreality, I embraced the ambiguity between abstraction and representation, between the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional.

The initial source materials are flat shapes that occupy real space, casting interesting shadows that I exaggerate in the paintings. The bends in the paper in the collage and the source lighting create highlights and shadows that add value and ambient light to the original local colours. The photos I take of the three-dimensional installations distort the forms through cropping and a combination of sharp focus and blur that can be emphasized through a combination of hard-edge and gestural blending techniques.

Cosmic Wall-Skew
Wall collage, water-based paint, chalk and pen on Mylar, paper and wood cut-outs
15' x 40'

OPP: Are your Cosmic Wall installations planned or improvised? What are some of the practical logistics of hanging your installations?

LB: The installations are loosely planned. I reuse the shapes with each new installation. After finding out where the work will be shown next, I get a general idea of what kind of superstructure I'm going to go for based on the conditions of the space (on the wall or hanging from the roof, horizontal swoop or water-fall, one main shape or small clusters, etc.) With this in mind, I make as many new shapes as time allows with the specific space in mind. I always start out with a general idea of the composition, but the installation grows incrementally and decisions are made organically in the process. I'm never very picky about exact placement of every piece. It is an abstract collage after all, and I personally enjoy accidental formations and surprises that happen through the process.

Through the different installations, the individual pieces have suffered some wear and tear, and I often need to patch some chipped bits up with paint or retire them altogether. All the individual bits have a maximum size of 4 x 8 feet because everything is stored in flat, cardboard portfolio packs—with the exception of some 20 foot ribbons that get rolled up for storage in a box. I've learned through experience that the paint shapes need at least a week of drying time before being packed away, and I need to separate them with newspaper or they will stick together.

Oil on birch panel
60" x 60"

OPP: Do you use assistants?

LB: At first, I did all the work from creation to installation myself, but as early as the Les-Territoires installation I began to delegate tasks and rely on installation assistants. I invited my friends to help me X-acto knife out my paper shapes to save time. The more complicated wood shapes were made by a professional printing company using computer laser cutting. My husband would hang my wood bits for me because I'm not strong enough to lift them. He's a commercial electrician and figured out the framework for hanging the heavier wood pieces, which are anchored to walls with metal rods painted white or hung from the roof with aircraft cable, using supplies he pilfered from construction sites. The collage itself is hung with clear push pins and fishing wire.

With the Glenbow Museum and Art Gallery of Calgary installations, I had a team of professional installation technicians helping me. I spread out all the shapes on the floor and handed them pieces one at a time while they were up on ladders. I told them where and how high to hang things, and they problem-solved to make it happen. The installation process is generally a fun and stress-free collaboration with the installation technicians, and I'm open to their suggestions in terms of installation and lighting.

Cosmic Wall-Glenbow
Wall collage, water-based paint, chalk and pen on Mylar, paper and MDF cut-outs
12' x 20' x 5'

OPP: In general, are your animations pure stop-motion or do you ever employ digital editing techniques?

LB: I try to achieve as much as possible in-camera with the hand-painted stop-motion techniques, but there are some digital effects added in post-production using AfterEffects. But with every digital effect added, the original source material becomes slightly degraded. I am compulsively obsessed with maintaining as much high-definition detail as possible. (I abhor seeing these films projected in SD!) So I make sure the lighting is perfect before filming and for the most part, I use the original paint colours and light levels. I crop and blur with the camera set-up instead of using computer scale change and blur filters.

When I first started Chromafilm, I was still learning animation, and I had some strategic struggles trying to achieve pre-set goals based on combining existing aesthetics of paint animation with my own pure abstract painting technique. I was thinking about animation as a way to create a living painting, emulating the experience of painting as the mind works through the possibilities and permutations of abstract composition. But I mostly wanted to make moving versions of the paint-on-Mylar shapes from the Cosmic Collage.

Stop-motion animation, water-based paint over back-lit glass
3:38 minutes

OPP: What about speed and mirroring in Chromafilm (2011)?

LB: I was never really satisfied with the level of frenetic activity of Chromafilm. Throughout the process, I did as much as possible to slow the paint down, but paint dropped into water moves at a certain speed and the camera takes a certain amount of time to capture each individual picture. The paint-on-glass painting technique is achieved with Golden fluid acrylics mixed with water and some glycerin (which never dries) poured over a glass window on a light table that is tipped slightly by a margin of millimeters. I wanted the final film to be HD, so I needed to capture the largest possible image files. Each individual frame took about two seconds to capture. Those two seconds felt so long as I watched the colour explode on the table into the water.

I learned a lot while tinkering with AfterEffects. I discovered the mirroring effect, which anchors the movement centrally and alleviates a previous sea sickness that came from watching the fast-paced movement flow rapidly from side to side. I learned to colour reverse by switching the curves, which turned the white background to black and altered the original stained glass-like color palate to an ultraviolet one. This aesthetic turned the recognizable paint on a light table into a cosmic and psychedelic field. 

Stop-motion animation, water-based paint over back-lit glass
16 minute loop

OPP: Your animation Apollo (2011) pulses back and forth in imagined scale. One second I see outer space; the next I'm looking at carbonation bubbles rising in a glass. As I watched the 16-minute loop, I fluctuated back and forth between wondering how certain effects were achieved and surrendering to the visual pleasure. What’s different in the process of this piece?

LB: One day while shooting Chromafilm, I took a break to go for a walk and when I came back, the paint had dried somewhat and mixed into a thick gooey puddle with some air-bubbles in it. On the computer screen, this shot looked like a starry sky. This moment was the impetus for Random Peter, Aquarius and Apollo. I shot Random Peter that same day. I used a brush to scrape away paint, and then shot image sequences as the paint slowly spilled in and filled the mark. In real time, the paint was moving at a slug’s pace because the paint mixture had less water in it than what I used for Chromafilm (speed problem solved).

The sequences I used for both Aquarius and Apollo were made by using a sponge off frame to soak up paint from under the bottom of the frame and squeeze it out over the top. When you see an explosion of dots in the frame, that was achieved by whipping a goop of paint from a paintbrush from out of frame. This process took more than half a year, and I ended up with 48 minutes of raw footage.

There is a particular effect that is more predominant in Apollo where the bubbles seem to streak in chains or lines. I copied the clip multiple times and repeatedly offset it by a single frame. When it looks like molecules slowly popping in and out, that’s actually a set of clips multiplied and offset about 40 times. I personally consider it both the success and bane of Aquarius and Apollo that the animation is so seamless that it is not readily apparent that it’s origin is hand-painted. Typically stop-motion animation is appreciated largely for the amount of work that goes into it. Because these films seem to be digitally created, that aspect goes unnoticed.

Acrylic and pen on masonite panel
4' x 6'

From a purely process point of view, do you prefer painting, installation or animation more?

LB: Overall, my practice is a combination of intuitive and analytical approaches. These varied processes fall somewhere along a spectrum between active/reflective spontaneity and compulsive methodology.

Painting is challenging and makes me think at every step. It is an energetic process where I am reflecting and responding to each and every brush stoke. Discoveries are made, boundaries pushed and surprises happen. When I feel like I've mastered a particular technique and I'm sure of how a painting will turn out, I move on to a new series of paintings. I don't like going through the motion of painting when I feel I already have the answers. To me, painting is a thought process as opposed to a technical one. Installing my collage work is downright fun. All the production work is already done. I literally wave my hands around, and, like magic—the magic is that other people do all the labour—a massive art piece comes to fruition.

I like animation because, I get so involved in the rhythmic methodical making and the rabbit-hole of editing that I can spend hours at it without stopping. By the time I was working on "Aquarius", capturing the stop-motion paint reached a point where I repeat the same action hundreds of times without the need for much reflective thinking or interpretation. The same could be said for hand-drawn cel-animation; although it leads to new forms, it involves an iterative process where I am basically tracing the same shape over and over again with only a small set of slight changes. These methodical actions put me in a meditative state where all thought or stress leaves my head. Video editing also satisfies my masochistic need to focus on very small details and set-up overly complicated processes where I create an unnecessarily labour-intensive procedure that could not be explained in simple terms.

I feel like you just asked me to pick my favourite child!

To see more of Leslie's work, please visit lesliebell.ca.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Recent exhibitions include solo shows I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan) and Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery in Chicago, as well as Here|Now, a two-person exhibition curated by MK Meador and also featuring the work of Jason Uriah White, at Design Cloud in Chicago (2014). Most recently, Stacia created  When Things Fall Apart, a durational, collage installation in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center. Closing reception guests were invited to help break down the piece by pulling pins out of the wall.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Kris Grey/Justin Credible

Performance Still (Clifford Owens Seminar at Pioneer Works, Brooklyn, NY)
Performance and Concept by Kris Grey
Photograph by Kris Grey and Fivel Rothberg

Gender queer artist KRIS GREY/JUSTIN CREDIBLE’s interdisciplinary practice includes video and ceramics, as well as a variety of performance modes: storytelling, drag, educational lectures, social interaction in public space and endurance. They explore the intersection of gendered embodiment, authority, intimacy and social justice. Kris received their BFA in Ceramics from Maryland Institute College of Art (2003) and their MFA in Fine Arts from Ohio University (2012). They perform and lecture internationally, most recently at Performatorium: Making It, Difficult at Neutral Ground Contemporary Art Forum at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada and Performing Franklin Furnace, curated by Clifford Owens at Participant Inc. in New York. Gender/Power, a collaboration with Maya Ciarrocchi, will begin a series of 2015 residencies at Baryshnikov Arts Center in March, Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn in the summer and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Process Space in the fall. From March 25 - 28, 2015, you can see Gender/Power performances at Gibney Dance Center in New York City. Kris will be the 2015 Perry Lecturer at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. Kris’s home base is Brooklyn.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Both your BFA and MFA are in Ceramics, but it seems that you are now focused on performance, video and social activism. What led to the shift from object-making to performance? Do you still find time for the studio? Do you ever miss object-making as a practice?

Kris Grey: I’ve been making objects and performances in parallel for as long as I can remember. I developed a performance persona named Justin Credible as a parallel to my studio practice in the early 2000s. That character allowed me to perform an array of alternative masculinities through drag performance. As Justin, I organized and performed with the Charm City Kitty Club from 2005-2009. I also performed in bars and on stages all over Baltimore and the Washington DC metro area. It wasn’t until grad school that I started producing performance and live art under the banner of visual art—in essence combining my creative identities.

I come to my work through craft. The way I use my body is closely tied to the way I use clay or other sculptural materials. With clay I work through form and build objects that exhibit, subvert or superseded gendered expectations. Ceramics is magical alchemy! You combine materials, manipulate forms and then place them under extreme duress to produce beauty. The material qualities of the body are similar. Bodies are always marked by socialization. Much in the way that clay records its own history, the body reveals its own stories. Flesh is pliable and plastic. It can be formed and reformed just like clay. 

I have taken that methodology on as a life project. My body is my main raw material. I use hormones and surgeries as a way to craft a queer form outside the binary of male and female. The material may change, but the core interests are constant—namely gender, authority and social justice.

Bottoms Up
Porcelain, glaze, decal
6"x 6"x 3"
Butt Plug service, microwave and dishwasher safe.

OPP:Ask A Tranny is an ongoing, interactive, public performance, social action and online project" which has been performed in Newark, London, Baltimore and Kuopio, Finland. How do you pick where to perform this piece? Has one place been more challenging than another? Where did you receive the most welcoming, enthusiastic response?

KG: The first time I performed Ask A Tranny (AAT) I was in London on a study abroad trip. I didn’t even have a passport before that summer. I was 30 years old, and travel was something I thought to be beyond my class status. Getting a passport probably seems simple to most people, although costly. However, for me there was a major consideration about what “sex” I should list myself as. I am gender-queer identified with a transgender history. I don’t self-identify as either male or female exclusively. When I applied for my passport, I had begun to take testosterone and my appearance was somewhere on the masculine spectrum though I didn’t have facial hair. I’ve never had the intention of changing my ID sex markers since I feel the M/F binary is arbitrary and insufficient. I am listed as “F” on all of my IDs including my license and my passport. I like to think of that F as standing for feminism. I saw my new passport as a conversation piece that made passing through security checkpoints particularly contentious. Whether I’m holding a passport or a sign, I’m enacting the same “performance”—performing myself as gender-queer for an audience of strangers and with differing stakes. At a border I risk detainment. In the public there are different risks. The passport and the cardboard sign both function as prompts for conversations around gender, embodiment and self-actualization. 

Since travel provoked this work, it seemed appropriate to perform it in many different geographical locations. I made a sign that fits into my suitcase and I take it along wherever I go. I usually perform in places of public gathering. Some sites have a particular resonance their history, for example Speakers Corner. I’ve run AAT in public parks, shopping centers and on college campuses. Sometimes there is resistance from police or authority figures who think, at first, that I am soliciting money. It helps to know and understand local laws for public use, which can vary greatly across cultures. In general, it is not illegal to hold a sign and conduct conversations in public spaces. That is what happens in AAT. The result, when I appear in public and make myself vulnerable, is that strangers meet me there with their own care and vulnerability. We exchange stories and create empathetic connections. Gender and my transness is the place we start but the conversations are as varied as the participants. Every single time I’ve performed AAT, I have had genuine, interesting and transcendent experiences with people I’ve never met before and will likely never see again.

How To Perform Trans Visibility in Three Easy Steps
A quick "how to" for those interested in performing trans visibility in the public.

OPP: Correct me if I'm wrong, but it is my understanding that tranny is generally considered a derogatory term these days. I can definitely see that you are reclaiming the term and therefore controlling it's perception with your performance, but I wonder if you ever get push back within the trans community for using the term tranny?

KG: I use the term tranny to identify myself. It’s personal to me. You are correct. Tranny is a trigger word that makes some folks feel unsafe. Though I’m very intentional in my use, I know that this particular word can be difficult and potentially harmful for those people. I would never say I’m “reclaiming” the word tranny. As someone on the trans masculine spectrum, it is not mine to reclaim. There is a great wide debate about who may use the term and who should not. I am certainly not advocating any position by my use of the word to identify myself.

I make my work with sincerity and I am always open to being challenged or critiqued. When people attend the public performances or see video footage I think that sincerity is communicated.

Performance Still (The Ice Palace at Cherry Grove, NY)
Performance and Concept by Kris Grey
Photograph by Kris Grey and Gordon Hall

OPP: While looking at all your work online, I was reminded of Bob Flanagan nailing his penis to a board, Stelarc's suspension and body modification and Marina Abramovic's 1974 performance Rhythm 0. Suspicious Packages (2010 and 2012) also reminds me at times of Martha Rossler's seminal feminist video Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975). How does your work relate to the art historical trajectory of endurance work?

KG: I’ve certainly been influenced by all the artists you list. I hope that my work continues in a legacy built of live art/body work, AIDS activism and feminism. I could make a list a mile long of writers, artists and activists I admire and seek to emulate. Trans* and gender queer artists like Kate Bornstein, Del LaGrace Volcano, Vaginal Davis, Leon Mostovoy, Heather Cassils and Tobaron Waxman come to mind. Body/live art artists including Linda Montano, Annie Sprinkle, Elizabeth Stephens, Barbara Hammer, Martha Wilson, Julie Tolentino, Rocio Boliver, Franko B, Dominic Johnson and Ron Athey, inspire me. I owe a great deal to the leadership and guidance of my teachers and mentors from high school to the present. While I look to other artists for inspiration, I am also indebted to the body workers and healers, trans* people, queers, crafters, sex workers and outcasts who have made their lives and work outside the frame of visual art.

Intergenerational dialog has been the key to my development in performance. I’ve had the great pleasure of performing for and working with amazing artists. Ron Athey’s work and writing have deeply influenced me and I’m so humbled to have built a relationship with him over the past two years. The first time I performed Homage, in 2013, Ron installed my chest piercings. In January 2015, we both performed in Regina, Saskatchewan, at Performatorium. We had the chance to participate in each other’s work again. This time, Ron worked together with another artist, Jon John, to help prepare my body for my performance. It’s an incredibly intimate thing to bring other people into your work through your body. And it’s such a gift when the people you admire invite you to perform in their work, as Ron did at Performatorium. That’s the best kind of mentorship for a live artist! 

Suspicious Packages (Finland)
Single Chanel Video

OPP: Whether in casual conversations in public spaces, in videos like How To Perform Trans Visibility in Three Easy Steps (2012) or in storytelling performances like Body Dialectic (2012), you project a warm, down-to-earth presence. You put people at ease and make it comfortable for them to ask questions. Is this just your personality or something you to cultivate and maintain?

KG: It may just be my personality. I was always coming home with report cards from school with teacher comments that read “too social in class.” I’ve always been interested in people; I just want to tell stories and hear stories. In a way I’ve built my practice around that desire. But being welcoming is a practice I’ve cultivated over time. I grew up in hospitality. My parents owned a small, seasonal motel in Upstate New York. I worked there from the time that I was in diapers until I left for college in Baltimore. While other kids were on summer vacations with their family, I was working. The motel was very formative. It brought strangers from all over into my life. I learned how to entertain.

OPP: Do you generally feel drained or jazzed after a public performance?

KG: Some of the content of my work is challenging. The core of my identity is an agitation to the very structure of binary socialization. I work through the lens of gender, but I’m ultimately interested in disrupting systems of power and dominance. I find it most effective to lead with vulnerability. I get nervous before I perform, sometimes for weeks before I appear on stage or in public. I’m an extrovert and something of an exhibitionist, but when the content of the work is so raw and personal I find it necessary to recharge after. During and immediately following a performance I feel elated. Some works, like Homage and (sub)Merge, take me through my body and out. Homage is really a meditative transcendence. Afterwards, I feel very vulnerable and fragile. I try to treat myself tenderly and with extra care. Sometimes that means that I need to be alone in a space that feels safe.

Intimate Gestures
Performance Still (Athens, OH)
Performance and Concept by Kris Grey
Photograph by Kris Grey and Paige Wright

OPP: I love what you say about leading with vulnerability. Personally, I believe that social and political change can be best brought about through activism based in storytelling, as opposed to protest, although they can certainly work in tandem. I’m thinking specifically about the changes in representations of LGBTQ characters in TV and movies over the last decade.

KG: I agree. Storytelling is an incredibly effective tool for social change. I cannot say if it's more or less effective than protest or if there is a clear delineation between the two. ACT UP and Gran Fury created an incredible amount of social change through protest. There is a vast difference between mainstream media storytelling and street-level activism, but it's hard to totally dismiss television programs because they have an incredibly wide reach. I think it's dangerous to judge work based on political efficacy alone.

We may also be thinking about storytelling in different ways. In my practice, direct community engagement through storytelling—and by storytelling, I mean people saying their truths of their lives in their words out loud to others for witness—can create revolution.

Body Dialectic
Performance Still (Athens, OH)
Performance and Concept by Kris Grey
Photograph by Kris Grey and Louise O'Rourke

OPP: What are your thoughts on recent media representations of trans characters, specifically Sophia Burset from Orange is the New Black and Maura Pfefferman from Transparent?

KG: The radical potential of trans* narratives is that they could disrupt a central power structure which touches every part of our lives: binary gender. I will say that we’ve never had a champion like Lavern Cox. She is such an incredible force, and I’m proud of the conversations she’s creating off screen. I admire her tremendously.

I am wary of mainstream media. Some of my earliest memories of trans* people come from daytime talk shows I saw as a kid. Someone would come out and be introduced to the audience who would be waiting with placards to guess if the guest was a man or a woman. From that kind of sensationalism, which still happens today, we have newer exploitations where after a lengthy introduction, the trans* guests break down and thank the host for letting them tell their story. . . except they hadn't just told their story! The host had interpreted and mediated it for the audience.

Consistently, in movies, on television and in the news, trans* people are portrayed as pathological. The dominant narrative produced is of being trapped in the wrong body. The wrong body narrative, so closely tied to the definition of transexualism from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, centers heteronormativity and distracts from any variation on the male/female binary. This dominant narrative reaffirms trans* folks as a strange apparition in need of medical and psychological intervention rather than a part of human diversity and who need access to life chances in health, housing, education and employment. Further, it skirts the real societal ills— sexism, misogyny, patriarchy and racism—that produce violence.

I suppose what I want to say here is that it depends on who's doing the telling. Trans* characters are increasingly complex; this is a good thing. The media machines that produce them are starting to cast actual trans* people, though not all the time and certainly not enough. I think trans* roles can be played by trans* people but I also think trans* actors can play non-trans roles. We often hear backlash when a cisgender person gets cast as a trans* character, but I'd like to see more diverse casting across all media, on TV, on stage, in movies, etc. Instead of casting for the lead “female” role, why not just cast for the role? Don’t immediately limit the possibilities of who could play that person. I want to see new representations of gender-queer and non-binary folks. It’s totally fine for people to feel like they’ve been “trapped in the wrong body,” but I don’t feel that way. I’d like to see more visibility for other non-binary people who feel differently.

To see more of Kris's work, please visit kristingrey.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Recent exhibitions include solo shows I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan) and Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery in Chicago, as well as Here|Now, a two-person exhibition curated by MK Meador and also featuring the work of Jason Uriah White, at Design Cloud in Chicago (2014). Most recently, Stacia created  When Things Fall Apart, a durational, collage installation in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center. Closing reception guests were invited to help break down the piece by pulling pins out of the wall.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Joshua Schwebel

A black leather glove was stolen from the office of the director of the MFA program at NSCAD. While I never admitted to having taken it, the program director was convinced that I was the culprit, even after the glove was anonymously returned to his home mailbox. I have since collected black leather gloves found on the street, and am anonymously mailing these one by one to his house.

JOSHUA SCHWEBEL repeatedly uses the strategies of displacement, redirection, impersonation and counterfeit in his conceptual, action-based practice. Whether he is leaving counterfeit missed delivery slips on the doors of art galleries, submitting exhibition proposals "on behalf of" other artists or paying people to visit a Montreal art gallery in order to skew attendance statistics, his projects often have the feel of art-world pranks while simultaneously calling into question our perceived distinctions between fiction and reality, as well as expectation and actual outcome. Joshua earned his BFA from Concordia University in 2006 and his MFA from Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in 2008. Recent solo exhibitions include [Caché] at AKA Artist-Run (2014) in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and Artspace (2013) in Petersborough, Ontario, and Micah Lexier (2012) at articule (Montreal, Quebec). In January 2015, Joshua began a year-long residency at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin, representing the province of Quebec, where he usually calls home.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Do you relate to the archetype of the Trickster?

Joshua Schwebel: I am really interested in shifting the ways that information refers to reality, and in so doing, constitutes the reality of the “real.” In much of my work, I try to shift or displace the relationship between information and reality, to show how our experience of what “is” is constructed by our anticipation of that expected reality. That being said, I do not identify with The Trickster even though my work has been labeled this way before. The Trickster archetype is expropriated from Indigenous and First Nations mythology, and since I have respect for other cultures’ symbolic integrity, I cannot accept this label. It perpetuates a problematic and privileged ignorance to pick and choose from cultural symbols.

Letter to articule director (from Please Do Not Submit Original Works)
Once learning that my imposter-submission had been accepted, I knew that I would have to disclose my action and the reasoning behind it, so I sent this letter to Julie Tremble, director of articule.

OPP: For Presentation: MFA Thesis Project (2008), you perpetrated to be working intensely on a tangible sculpture only to end up presenting nothing at the opening. In retrospect, you had been working on a year-long performance about anticipation and expectation. You were working the entire year, just not in the way people thought. Were you surprised by the response?

JS: I really enjoyed that project and felt a lot of energy and excitement while preparing for the public encounter with the (absent) work. I wasn’t expecting that people would misunderstand the project or would respond negatively to it. However, students and faculty both reacted quite strongly, and their reactions were surprising. I remember feeling in a bit of a panic over how the atmosphere in the school suddenly shifted. Before the show, I was a relatively unremarkable student, whereas, during and after the show, I found that I had ignited very strong reactions. This was exhilarating, because I really want to make work that creates a reaction, but also, like I said, unexpected. I wanted to create that reaction, but I didn’t anticipate how it would feel for me to be identified as the source of this reaction.

Working (part of Presentation: MFA Thesis Project)
A series of digital photos in which the artist is "working."
Photo Credit: Cam Matamoros

OPP: Can you describe the reactions more specifically?

JS: I prefer not to focus on people’s reactions without more carefully considering the stakes or factors within the work. Setting up my work as provocative of negative reactions reduces what I am doing to how people react to what I'm doing. In many of my works, nobody reacts, or there is no public. I do not consider these works any less interesting or deliberate!

To focus on emotional reactions overlooks the significant risk that I invest personally in enacting a work. For me, the type of critique I am pursuing also deliberately and necessarily involves deep personal risk. This is because I am part of the system, and I can only critique the system as a part of it. However, this means that I also cannot escape the impact of it, and must also examine my own investment in the system and culpability for its flaws while showing how corrupt and inadequate it is. In the case of the MFA project, I was risking my degree. I was daring the faculty and the committee to specify the conditions by which the MFA is granted, by potentially failing the degree as a result of my project's demonstration of the degree's bankruptcy.

Presentation: MFA Thesis Project
Opening reception

OPP: How does the challenge of human emotion aid or obstruct your conceptual agenda?

JS: I am interested in provoking and upsetting systems and social constructs. If people are so attached to these systems and processes that they become upset when I apply pressure to an unexamined aspect of a system, their reaction is only part of the work insofar as it elaborates the limits of the social system I am addressing. I am interested in how people protect systems, and how limits can be articulated by these protective behaviors.

Sometimes people get angry, but this is not the goal of my work. It's merely a byproduct. My intention is to create an intellectual disconnect: I am engaged in challenging values that privilege certain forms of encounter. Sometimes when values are challenged, people react emotionally, and I think in these cases, emotions are an expression of frustration or misunderstanding. But I am not trying to hurt anybody, just make them reconsider what they think, or indicate certain circumstances in which they act or react without thinking.

OPP: How has your MFA project affected the trajectory of your work since then?

JS: I have been refining many of the themes I discovered through that work: the relationship between expectation and absence, the circulation of the fictive or counterfeit and how the art gallery can turn anything into art, since it both signifies and neutralizes all content. Since then, I have looked more closely at these themes, finding new connections and permutations in so doing. Looking back at the project, it still feels familiar and exciting to me since it opened up a large territory of concepts, which I’m still exploring.

He pretended to be JPM
He pretended to be John
He pretended to be Eric Clapton as George Harrison
He pretended to be Don Knotts replacing Brian Epstein
He pretended to be Charlie Brill impersonating John Lennon
He pretended to be Neil Aspinall, impersonating Paul, aka Faul
He was also pretending to be Ringo Starr pretending to be Captain Kangaroo, but that scheme bellyflopped.
You see, not all things are what they seem to be.
Inkjet prints on paper, installation view
36" x 48"

OPP: Impersonation is a staple strategy for you. In Please Do Not Submit Original Works (2012), you submitted a proposal for an exhibition to the gallery articule "on behalf of" Canadian conceptual artist Micah Lexier. In Vertigo: Between the Deaths (2009), you hired an actor to impersonate you in both your personal and professional life. Fonograph (2011) examines "the conspiracy theory that Paul McCartney of the Beatles died in a car crash in 1966 and was replaced by an impostor." Could you talk generally about your interest in impersonation?

JS: This is a difficult question, because impersonation is so central to my practice. The more I work with the concept, the further it leads me. Part of my work is a critique of the cult of the artist’s name, and how, as artists, it seems less important to produce any ‘thing’ as it is to produce and circulate our names. Disturbing the artist-brand is sacrilegious, and impersonation is a technique to achieve this disturbance. Another aspect involves the debates around performance art and documentation, and how the live event of performance is made permanent (and no longer live) by its documentation. I see an analogy between the performance document and the role of the impostor or impersonator. I am conceptually attracted to any value system that both requires and denigrates a substitute, impersonation being one expression of this. 

"Fall": refabrication
Pen and ink
I found a letter to the editor of Art in America written by Carl Andre denouncing an unauthorized reproduction of his (mechanically produced) work. I reproduced this letter by hand, and inserted my hand-written copy in the place of the printed letter. I left the magazine in the archives of a library (location undisclosed).

OPP: Is there a meaningful distinction between these impersonations of individuals and your hand-drawn versions of mass-produced printed material in projects like How to Get Into A Major Museum Collection (2012) and Circulaire (2014) or "Fall:" refabrication (2010)?

JS: Not really. I see the drawing work as a direct extension of my interest in impersonation. Both impersonation and drawing stem from a fascination with identity as construction, and  both attempt to study how our personal claims to identity (which we believe to be knowable, visible, self-contained and rational) are haunted by the non-transparent, incomprehensible, secretive and fragmentary. My drawn work is intended to exist as counterfeit. The counterfeit is fundamentally but invisibly different from the authentic object. However, to function as counterfeits, rather than technically sophisticated replicas, they must be circulated as everyday objects amongst everyday objects. The disruption they might enact can only operate in circulation.

How to Get Into a Major Museum Collection
Markers, pen on acid-free paper
1,396 tags each measuring 1.5 x 3"

OPP: Let's talk about the practicalities of documentation as it relates to funding and exhibition proposals. In most cases, one must read a lot to understand your work, which can count against an artist when decisions are made by panels. How have your methods of documenting your work changed over time? Any advice for other conceptual artists whose work does not have a prominent visual component?

JS: I struggle occasionally with the limited attention span of juries and the conservative structures of portfolio submissions. I am not by any means the first artist to work with context-specific work or to evacuate meaning or aesthetic appeal from the image. It bothers me that juried submissions presuppose an image-centric practice. I think the wrong approach is to change one’s work to meet these institutional expectations. I am sure that my career suffers from this position, but I am pretty hard-headed about what my work is and what it isn’t. The work requires explanation, and thought, which I am not willing to abandon or compromise. For other artists, my advice is to keep being stubborn and keep being patient.

To see more of Joshua's work, please visit joshuaschwebel.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Recent exhibitions include solo shows I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan) and Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery in Chicago, as well as Here|Now, a two-person exhibition curated by MK Meador and also featuring the work of Jason Uriah White, at Design Cloud in Chicago (2014). Most recently, Stacia created  When Things Fall Apart, a durational, collage installation in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center. Closing reception guests were invited to help break down the piece by pulling pins out of the wall.