OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Lisa Nilsson

Female Thorax
Mulberry paper
24 1/2 x 15 x 1 1/2 inches

Detached investigation and emotional reverence collide in LISA NILSSON's beautiful, paper sculptures based on cross-sections of human—and sometimes animal—anatomy. She uses the meticulous technique known as quilling or paper filigree, which has historical roots in the Renaissance, when monks and nuns used it to decorate religious icons and reliquaries, and the Victorian Era, when the technique was popularized as a decorative craft practiced by ladies of leisure. Housed in shadowboxes, her sculptures refer to both religious relics and scientific specimens, highlighting the human need to understand our place in the world, whether through rationality or direct experience. Lisa received her BFA from Rhode Island School of Design (1985). She has had solo exhibitions at Wilson Wilde Gallery at Williams College (2008) the Lavender Door Gallery in Stockbridge, Massachusetts (2011) and Pavel Zoubok Gallery in New York, where she is represented. Lisa lives in North Adams, Massachusetts.

OtherPeoplesPixels: When did you learn the technique known as quilling or paper filigree? Did you pick it specifically for your current project on human anatomy or did you practice the technique before beginning this project?

Lisa Nilsson: I started experimenting with quilling after being inspired by an antique, quilled crucifix I saw in a junk shop. I first used it as an element in the box-assemblages I was making. At the time, quilling was just another technique to include in these tiny curiosity cabinets.

Mulberry paper
19 x 22 x 1 1/2 inches

OPP: Could you talk about the historical associations of this technique as they relate to your anatomical studies?

LN: In doing a bit of research about quilling, I encountered a collection of 18th and 19th century French quilled reliquaries. They employ a great deal of decorative filigree made with gilded-edged paper and velvet backgrounds. I started using gilded paper in my anatomical work, in part, because it looks cool, but also to reference the precious and the divine. The device I used was to make the bones of my anatomical pieces with gilded paper. And later in Angelico (2012), the section of the head is surrounded by a large gold halo.

Mulberry paper

OPP: Admittedly, I know very little about anatomy, but the meticulous detail in your Tissue Series gives the impression that these are pretty accurate renderings of the landscape of the body.

LN: Thanks, I do my best. I’ve maintained that my goal is not to annoy the people who really know what they are looking at, but not to hold myself to the standards of a medical illustrator. 

I made my first two anatomical pieces, Female Torso and Head and Torso, in 2010, then took a year away from the studio to become a certified medical assistant. This actually wasn’t prompted by the artwork. Rather, I had a strong urge to do practical work outside the studio and around people. In the end, I found that the solitude and impracticality of the studio suited me best, but the anatomy and physiology study in school was helpful in introducing me to the basics of what I was looking at in the images of cross-sections.

OPP: Do you work from source imagery?

LN: Yes. I work from a combination of medical illustrations (typically older), 19th century prints and photographic images from the government-sponsored Visible Human Project, in which a cadaver was frozen, encased in a block, then photographed at very fine intervals as it was gradually ground away. The stunning images are a main source of information and inspiration for my Tissue Series.

Head II
10 x 12 1/2 x 1 1/2 inches

OPP: Tell us about the process of moving from two-dimensional image to paper sculpture.

LN: This is the interesting and challenging part. . . to interpret what I see in my source material as little paper coils in a way that honors the materials as well as the subject matter. I strive to increase the repertoire of shapes and textures I can make with the paper. It’s been an evolving process. 

I typically start in a central place and work my way out, hoping for the best. I make each little piece as I go. Some are single coils; others are compound coils (several, or many individual coils gathered and wrapped with an outer strip of paper and shaped as needed). I also make some pieces that start out as large loops that fold in on themselves, then I insert other coils if there are gaps—this has been my technique for brain matter. I glue each new element to its neighbor, and the sculpture comes together like a jigsaw puzzle. I work on top of a sheet of styrofoam insulation so that I can pin the coils in place. As the sculpture progresses, the pins migrate to the periphery. When I'm finished, I remove them, and the piece tends to spread a bit. Then I turn it over, re-pin the outer edge to the shape I want and brush PVA (bookbinder's white glue) onto the back. It now has enough rigidity to hold its shape and to be moved about.

I’ve worked on anatomical studies for about five years now. I’ve developed some interesting means of manipulating the paper that I haven’t had the opportunity to fully explore yet because they didn’t make sense within the context of anatomy. But recently, I’ve been moving toward allowing the paper take the lead. I’m making pieces that are more geometric, inspired by textiles, plant forms and leather book bindings among other things. This has opened up my color palette as well.

Abdomen (detail)
15 x 12 1/2 x 1 1/2 inches

OPP: In your 2012 talk at TEDMED, you spoke of common initial responses from viewers. Initially they say the work is "beautiful" and "kinda creepy," then they start looking more closely. Could you talk about using craftsmanship and beauty to get viewers interested in their own bodies?

LN: It’s a very nice side effect. Craftsmanship is what most interests me and drives my work. If it also draws people in and interests them in something they would otherwise find yucky—I’m delighted. But this wasn’t by design.

My love of craftsmanship seems to be hardwired and life-long. As a kid, I often craved more precise, pointed, accurate tools than I was handed. I remember my Dad, a graphic designer and all-around-inventor, talking to me about making drawings that had to be so accurate that the thickness of the pencil's lead had to be taken into account. I thought that was just the coolest thing! I love a snug fit, a clean line, and I'm happiest when monotasking

I've always been attracted to small things, and I feel a rush of pleasure when I look at things that have a quality I've come to think of as contained complexity. . . lots of detail in a very sharply and clearly defined space. However, I derive much inspiration from artists who are my opposite, those who work with an uninhibited abandon. Robert Rauschenberg is a favorite art-hero.

OPP: The overlap of religious relics and scientific specimens is a theme in both your Tissue Series and in older works from 2006 like The Ants are my Friends, The White Cabinet and Hillside Cemetery, which are like curiosity cabinets that include found objects, drawings and photographs. How are relics and specimens alike? How are they different?

LN: As I see it, relics and specimens are alike in that they are actual objects that are collected, protected, preserved and observed or displayed. But the relic is typically revered, while the specimen is studied. 

I like blurring the distinction. In my mind, this has to do with the amount and type of attention paid to the object and its context. If I treat a dead ant with enough reverence, surround it with velvet and gold leaf and imbue it with importance, can it be a relic? If I recognize the common biological and material nature of a saint’s bone can I release it from its lofty responsibility and view it as a “mere” specimen?

The White Cabinet
Plywood support, glass and grout with found objects and mixed media, including Q-tips, aspirin, smalti, and skunk's tooth
12 x 12

OPP: Exactly! I completely agree. I love the way this makes clear that it is not the objects themselves, but rather the way we see them and think about them. The spiritual teacher Krishnamurti, who is not affiliated with any particular dogma or religion, says that if you pick up any random stick and you stare at it for several moments everyday, soon it will become a sacred stick.

LN: Yes, yes. . . I love the way this is stated here. Thanks for bringing it to my attention! I've got a friend who refers to the "culturally imbued object." His kids start fighting over some random thing because one of them has paid attention to it, and now the other thinks it's hot stuff.   

OPP: The point is of course that it is our attention that makes an object sacred, which makes me think of all the time you spend creating your objects. Do you ever think of your studio practice as a spiritual practice?

LN: Yes, in that the work is focused and meditative. Words like dedication and seclusion come to mind. I feel a strong affiliation with the people who work like this—the nun in the convent, the monk in the monastery, the scientist in the lab. To put oneself in the service of making something as well as one can for the glory of. . . here's where I part with religion. It's not god for me. I'm happy with the stick.

To see more of Lisa's work, please visit lisanilssonart.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 her cross-stitch embroideries, remix video and collage 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 solo exhibitions include 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. Stacia is currently looking forward to creating a site-responsive collage installation in her hometown. NEXT: Emerging Virginia Artists opens on July 11, 2014 at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center in Newport News, VA.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Lauren Fensterstock

Mirror Displacement #2
paper, plexi, charcoal
9 x 20 x 5 ft
Installation at Austin Museum of Art-Arthouse

LAUREN FENSTERSTOCK combines art historical references to Modernism with Victorian craft traditions in her dense installations of handmade paper flowers, charcoal and mirrors. Her meticulaously built monochromatic gardens appear minimal from afar, but a closer look reveals an indulgent attention to detail. Recent exhibitions include Two Takes on One Space: Lauren Fensterstock and Steve Wiman at The Austin Museum of Art (TX), Incidents of Garden Displacement at The Ogunquit Museum of American Art (ME) and Dubh: Dialogues in Black at Oliver Sears Gallery (Ireland). Her upcoming solo exhibition Lauren Fensterstock: The Celebration of Formal Effects, Whether Natural or Artificial opens on March 3, 2012, at the John Michael Kohler Art Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Lauren is also a writer, curator and educator living in Portland, Maine.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Your recent work makes marvelous use of quilling, a paper craft that is most associated—despite its long history— with the leisurely labor of upper class women during the Victorian era. Can you explain what quilling is for our readers? When and why did you first learn the technique?

Lauren Fensterstock: Quilling is the art of curling strips of paper by wrapping them around a pin or dowel—artisans used pen quills for this task, hence the name quilling. It has also been called paper lace or paper filigree and was sometimes used to decorate reliquaries when precious metals were not available. Quilling was included in a group of crafts thought of as accomplishments for young ladies including painting tables, embroidery and piano. My work is inspired by quilling, but most of the forms and techniques that I use veer away from tradition. Quilling designs tended to be very flat and symmetrical, whereas I prefer to get a little messy.
A Third Nature no 7
paper and charcoal under glass
10 x 10 in

OPP: Looking at the shadow box pieces of Third Nature (2007), it appears you first started quilling in a contained way that is much closer to the historical tradition, which tends to revolve around the creation of heirlooms and mementos. But in the last few years, those framed pieces have grown into site-specific installations which combine the quilled paper flowers with charcoal and mirrors. What initially led to the shift into installation?

LF: One of my original inspirations was an object called a Claude glass. Allegedly developed by painter Claude Loraine, this small black mirror was used to capture scenes for landscape painting. Tourists also took these mirrors into the picturesque landscape to find “scenery.” With my first quilling pieces, I was attempting to make something that approximated the size of one of these looking glasses. Those boxes were partly filled with loose charcoal which alternately obscured and revealed the ornamental designs inside. This was a way to allow real characteristics of nature to speak to the reductions of nature symbolized by the Claude glass.

The glass made these pieces highly reflective. Standing in front of one of these pieces, you would first see yourself, then see inside and finally, perhaps, catch a glimpse of the fictitious illusion of yourself inside the scene. But I truly wanted to be inside the landscapes, hence the installations. Gardens are experienced temporally. They change and reveal themselves through different vantage points. I wanted my work to do that. More recently, the shadowboxes have also gotten bigger—up to 12 feet wide—so these have also taken on a more landscape-like presence.

OPP: Do you create all the parts for the installations by yourself or with the assistance of others?

LF: I have a studio assistant 10 hours a week, but otherwise I make everything. As you can imagine, it is very slow going. I love to get lost in the labor, just like the ladies of the parlor. I listen to a lot of books on tape and a lot of NPR. I love the satisfaction of completing each tiny part. The work involves a lot of repetition, so each part is like an atom in a complex whole.
paper, charcoal, plexi
14 x 12 x 5 ft
Installation at Sienna Gallery, Lenox, MA

OPP: In works like Parterre (2008), Mound (2010) and Incidents of Garden Displacement (2011), your lush paper and charcoal "gardens" are entirely black. Was the choice to make these works monochromatic an aesthetic or conceptual decision?

LF: The black is partly an homage to my original source—the Claude glass. It also makes reference to other sources that I think about: Ad Reinhardt, Malevich, minimalist sculpture in general. I am interested in the way that people have actually reshaped nature through gardens to create a metaphoric image of the universal order. These images vary widely, from the Apollonian hierarchy of Versailles to the democratic nostalgia of the English landscape. My work draws from multiple sources, including garden theory, minimalism, metaphysics, ultimately mixing them together. The monochromatic tone provides a kind of equalizing effect.

The black also allows the work to appear totally minimal. At first you think you are looking at a black hole, a void, and then you realize that this is actually an insanely complicated object. Then it slips back to looking like the void again. The color black is magical. The potential for depth, shadow and confusion is immense—especially when it is paired with reflective surfaces.
OPP: I definitely see the explicit reference to Minimalism—and I like the word play!—in Colorless Field (2012). But as I looked through your website, I was thinking more about mourning than Minimalism. The quilling done all in black led me to think of another Victorian-era craft, hair art, which was often made with the hair of a deceased loved one as a memento. Is anything being mourned in your installations?

LF: I’m very interested in Victorian mourning culture and even own some hair jewelry. I love that stuff. Victorians used those mementos to bridge the gap of loss. The objects were like touchstones that allowed individuals to connect across the divide of life and death. For me, this is a gesture approaching the sublime—something I might associate more with Modernism. But the universal visual language of Modernist images often leaves me feeling cold. I’m interested in figuring out how to attain a kind of non-objective experience with objects. How can we reach the sublime through familiar materials and the natural world? In a way, I want to take the successes and failures of all of these various fields, blur them together and allow the best and the worst to have it out. It is interesting to see how something like 17th century French formal gardens and Victorian crafts can work together toward similar goals, but I also like the way they expose the other’s shortcomings.

But am I mourning something? Maybe. I was a major teen goth, and I’m a sucker for a good sweeping melodrama. I think, maybe, I just like getting lost in a drama, whether it’s rooted in something real or in a total fabrication. But then again,  I am also the kind of girl who cries during commercials!
paper, charcoal, plexi
5 x 10 x 20 ft
Installation commissioned by Bowdoin College Museum of Art

OPP: Do you consider your work to be part of a feminist art tradition or do you make work from a feminist perspective or position?

LF: As I suggest above, I am interested in blurring boundaries to create a sort of equaling effect. I like the idea of mashing together things that feel incongruous. The artist Robert Smithson has been a huge influence on my work, and I regularly appropriate forms and ideas directly from his projects. Pairing references to a macho earth artist with a ladies’ parlor art? It may seem strange, but that feels right to me.

I draw freely from a variety of sources, both high and low, natural and manmade, male and female. I suppose attempting to escape the prescriptive confines of language in that way could definitely be considered a feminist directive.

OPP: I think that synthesizing the binaries that exist in our language is absolutely a feminist directive because binaries pit the culturally-defined masculine and feminine against each other. Blurring the boundaries between those things is a significant act, in my opinion. We’ve already talked about quilling, but I’d love to hear more about your interest in Robert Smithson. How has his work influenced yours?

LF: I find him fascinating. He had a vast knowledge base and applied it in so many media—writing, drawing, earthworks, sculpture. His essays are fantastic. I particularly love his writing on Frederick Law Olmstead and his photo essay Incidents of Mirror Travel in the Yucatan. Mirror Travels was inspired by a Victorian travelogue Incidents of Travel in Yucatan by John Lloyd Stevens. I’m interested in the way he draws from history and slyly recontexualizes our understanding of the past. His notion of time is also unique. For Smithson, history is a specific period, and we have the potential to move into an era after the end history, where time is no longer understood as a progression.
OPP: What new direction in your studio or upcoming opportunity are you most excited about?

LF: My show at Kohler marks the culmination of a body of work that has spanned the last five years. After this, I have some time to experiment, to read and research. Currently, I'm working on a public art commission for Maine General, a new hospital opening in September in my home state of Maine. Then have a solo show at Sienna Gallery in Lenox, Massachusetts coming up in August 2013. I’m excited to work toward that show without a sense of predetermination. I want to find something new. I’m just starting to do some research into the history of Romanticism and thinking a lot about escaping rationalism. I’m not exactly sure what’s coming next, which is a bit scary and also thrilling. I have been thinking about color. I keep looking at Anish Kapoor’s use of red. He talks about red being even darker than black. I want to find out if that is true…

To see more of Lauren's work, please visit laurenfensterstock.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and existential significance of participating in mediated culture in her embroidery, video, sculpture and collage works. She received her MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2006), where she will begin teaching in Spring 2013, and is currently a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT Residency in Chicago. Notable exhibitions include Losing Yourself in the 21st Century (Maryland Art Place, Baltimore), MP3 (The Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago), Please Stand By: Stacia Yeapanis + Readymade (Baang & Burne Contemporary, New York), Over and Over Again (BOLT Project Space, Chicago).