KELDA MARTENSEN combines printmaking and collage in poetic explorations of displacement, longing and sorrow. Her rich visual language includes recurring images of domestic architecture, the burdened human figure and the wide-open landscape. Kelda earned her BA in Studio Art from Willamette University in Salem, Oregon in 2002 and her MFA with honors from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri in 2009. Her solo exhibitions include Works on Paper (2009) at University of Missouri Craft Gallery (Columbia, Missouri), Something is Shifting (2010) at Pratt Gallery (Seattle), Kelda Martensen (2012) at Door No. 3 (Twisp, Washington) and To read your gestures aloud: new prints and collages by Kelda Martensen (2015) at Johnston Architects (Seattle). Her work is available through the SAM Gallery, limited edition prints are available for sale through Mantle Art and her work is currently on view at Gallery AXIS in Seattle until April 4, 2016. Kelda is a tenured professor of art at North Seattle College in Seattle, Washington, where she lives.
OtherPeoplesPixels: How do the themes of displacement, searching and burden intersect in your work?
Kelda Martensen: I think we all try to make sense of our sorrow somehow, and as artists, this grappling often drives the work. Poetically, I feel very connected to ideas of displacement and carrying a shifting sense of home along the journey. I relate to the intellectual and emotional experience of searching—as a woman, artist, mother and educator. I want my work to have curiosity, restlessness and yearning. I keep returning to the theme of burden. Even though we use it to speak about a heavy, cumbersome, unwanted obstacle, it's a word that is often connected to something good: responsibility, feeling needed, an opportunity, a goal, time with a loved one. I want to get at this ambiguity in my work. I want to communicate the beauty and strangeness of a moment that is at once soaring, yet uncomfortable. . . light and illuminated, yet heavy and unmoving.
OPP: Why is your combination of printmaking and collage the perfect vehicle for your conceptual concerns?
KM: I work with the collapsing of memories and narratives. Collage is a natural way of organizing these ideas. Before I start to collage, I become engaged in the processes of printmaking. While the structure and time required in printmaking allows me the room to generate ideas, I feed off the free-association and immediate compositional and conceptual feedback that I get from collage. I am interested in where these two ways of working intersect, where printed marks have the spontaneity of collage, and drawn and collaged marks have the intention and permanence of the print.
OPP: There’s a repeated visual motif of overlapping, colored circles. They first show up in 2012 in pieces like I'll be your closest neighbor and The Outskirts of Sleep, where they highlight empty space. Are these circles symbolic or purely formal?
KM: I'm interested in how the meaning of a symbolic image grows with usage. I keep returning to the circle, and I do love it for its formal qualities. I appreciate how it activates the negative space around it and can so easily achieve the illusion of depth and form. I play with circles to intentionally flatten a space or to make a space more atmospheric. Sometimes the circle acts as a void, other times as a form. In my earlier work, such as The Outskirts of Sleep, the repeating circles were really more about the edges, the void within and highlighting the unknown. Most of the symbols I use create movement in some way. The circle, especially when repeated, can represent a larger cosmic notion of movement: the circling around the sun, tidal patterns in connection with the moon, a lifetime.
OPP: They then became a dominate feature of your public art project West Seattle Signal Box Project (2014), where they are filled with what looks like both the surface of the ocean or a textured landscape.
KM: For the West Seattle Signal Box Project, I wanted to use a recurring motif that would associate five different public art installations with one another. I took the idea of the overlapping circles from my previous works and exaggerated the repetition as a way to fill a large surface area, and to speak to the vibrant rhythms of a city on the edge of wilderness. In West Seattle's case, it is a neighborhood with both urban density and the vast expanse of the Puget Sound waters. The surface of the ocean is from a woodcut I carved inspired by my time living in Alaska. I enjoy how people read this particular image both as land and water.
OPP: Another recurring—and much more loaded—visual motif is architecture in many forms. What does the house mean in your work?
I think the house is my most autobiographical symbol. My dad is a
cabinetmaker, boat builder and sign carver. I grew up with plywood
boxes, needle nose pliers and cedar shavings as toys. I spent a lot of
time thinking about houses, looking casually at blueprints and walking
through construction sites daydreaming. My dad's shop was only steps
from our backdoor, and the path between house and shop was traveled so
constantly that the two became blurred in my mind.
As a college student, I had my first opportunities to travel outside the United States. I lived and studied in Galway, Ireland and Durban, South Africa. After being in Europe and then Africa, architecture took on a new meaning for me. It became more universal than personal, more about history, class and race. In Durban, I became very interested in contemporary African photographers such as Zwelethu Mthethwa and Malick Sadibé—especially in the use of pattern and architectural façades in portraiture—and began to understand the visual role of architecture in storytelling and narrative. I now reference architectural forms to speak about place, be it an internal, psychic place or an external, physical place. Every time I use a roof, a window or a hardwood floor in my work, I have a feeling that I am recalling my earliest memories. Though my use of architecture is drawn from my personal narrative, I hope that it speaks to the human experience and a larger more global story.
OPP: What role does your sketchbook play in your practice?
KM: I keep several sketchbooks at once and don't necessarily work through the pages in order. This allows me to go back in time and to react to earlier ideas from previous phases in my life. I can revisit places I've traveled and feel closer to past experiences and the passing of time through drawings. My most prolific sketchbook practice happens when I'm traveling or when I otherwise find myself alone and without distraction. With teaching full time and raising a two-year-old, I don't really experience those moments as I used to. Returning to earlier sketchbook pages allows me to return to a time of creative concentration when I might not currently be in one. Still, I can fill pages even if I only have a minute, and it is a safe space to try out ideas quickly. My sketchbooks allow me to feel productive and connected to my art practice.
OPP: How does the sketchbook relate to the artist book as a form?
KM: I am always grateful and intrigued whenever I have the chance to see an artist's sketchbook. Like artist books, they are a gift to look through. The sketchbook relates to the artist book not only as a visual form for the distribution of ideas, but also as a way of presenting images to the viewer in an intentional order. This is what fascinates me about the artist book. It is so closely related to printmaking, but it is about the order of the narrative and about how one handles or operates the images. The sketchbook, though not necessarily made for an audience, is also about the order of presentation, and the condition of the pages. With artist books and sketchbooks, I am most intrigued by the treatment of the pages and how they relate to one another. I often incorporate actual sketchbook moleskin journal pages into my work in hopes of evoking this very personal act of reflection, wandering, note-taking.
OPP: You created the first course in public art at North Seattle College, Tell us about the collaborative murals you create with students. Mural painting seems vastly different from printmaking, but is there an unexpected connection in either the process or the product?
KM: It's funny you ask this now, as I'm currently working on a mural project that connects more with my studio practice than any mural I've done before. I am creating a large-scale temporary installation for a construction fence around a future light rail station in the North end of Seattle. I work off-site, creating huge plywood shapes that are puzzled together from several sheets of plywood and painted to mimic my woodcuts and monotypes. The curator of the project, Christian French, pushed me to think about this mural in a way that was much more akin to collage and printmaking. Previously, I made traditional murals painted directly onto the wall. I am really enjoying this new way of thinking about it. I can already tell that this mural project is influencing my studio practice and pushing my comfort with scale—not to mention all the scrap wood to make woodcuts from when I'm done!
The opportunity to design and teach the Mural Art course at North Seattle College has been invigorating for my teaching and studio practice. Each spring, I work with 10-20 students who enroll in the course and together we take on the transferring and painting of a design created by a professional artist. From an instructor's perspective, I feel a heightened sense of collaboration with my students in this course. It's really fun to watch the students take pride and agency in the transformation of the wall and to have the work of students applauded by the campus community. It's always a highlight of my year.
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. Her solo exhibitions include I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan), Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery (Chicago) and When Things Fall Apart, a durational, collage installation in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (Chicago). Form Unbound, a two-person show, also featuring the work of Aimée Beaubien, closed in December 2015 at Dominican University's O’Connor Art Gallery (River Forest, IL). Most recently, Stacia created a brand new site-responsive installation for SENTIENCE, a group show at The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art in March 2016.