“I’m acutely aware of my own physical fragility and my own evolving relationship with my body.”
Erin Gould sculpts ethereal works that investigate the weakness and fragility of the body. To do so, she works with her materials in a tactile, intimate way, often leaving her studio covered in beeswax, essential oils, and polyurethane.
Kyle Farrell, Alex Gill and Jordan Eddy, co-directors of Strangers Collective and the No Land art space, curate this exhibition of emerging artists and writers at form & concept. The show engages a network of early career creatives, anchored in Santa Fe and spiraling across the nation. Its curatorial throughline presents a radical method for reflecting on place and identity through art objects.
“It’s about not being afraid to put diamonds and pearls with broken glass and bone,” says Robert Ebendorf. The master jeweler’s mixed-media philosophy comes from nearly six decades of working with found objects. When you’re a self-proclaimed “gleaner,” life is an endless treasure hunt. Ebendorf’s innovative work has landed in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Now he’s form & concept’s newest represented artist. We visited Ebendorf’s studio to talk about his remarkable career, philosophy of design and day-to-day studio practice.
How did people react to your initial work with found objects in the 1960’s?
I was in the forest by myself for quite a while, in a sense. I made such a radical swing from making jewelry with silver and stones—I was never big with gold and diamonds. So when that was happening, I kept thinking “Who’s going to be interested in this work?” I had to contemplate that and make that choice. I stayed with it an pursued it.
The thing is, I have been very blessed. Because I was a teacher at a university, I got a paycheck every month and that helped my studio practice. I could venture into the unknown and uncover my imagination.
You’ve been a teacher for over 50 years. Could you reflect a bit on that experience?
One part of my journey has been mentoring. It’s been a gift to be that involved with young, enthusiastic minds. I was locked into a time zone of 22 years old to 29 years old. Each year I got older, I don’t know about any wiser, but I was locked into that time zone. I realized there was a lot of juice there. A lot of problem solving. Looking back on it, I realize it had a wonderful benefit of being with young people as they creatively try to find their way.
How do you organize your space?
If you look closely at my workbench, I try to make order out of chaos. Now, chaos is all this stuff in front of me. But order is designing, putting colors and textures together. What I call order, you might think doesn’t make any sense. It’s ugly.
There are certain tools I must find and put back on the rack exactly where they belong, so when I’m ready I can go back and it’s there. So I guess there is an order. My beloved wife looks at it, and says, “I don’t see any order.”
You call yourself a “gleaner.” What does that mean to you?
When I’m walking, I’m picking things up and I’m putting things in my fanny-pack. At the seafood restaurant I might gather the claws from the table and bring them home. And in a month, I come back and begin to make a brooch out of it.
Gleaning, finding the discard, I find very enjoyable. When I’m gathering things, I come home, lay them out, clean them, put everything in the right order. It’s my kind of meditative playfulness. There’s something about gleaning that’s been in my DNA since I was a small child.
What sorts of things did you collect when you were growing up in Kansas?
I would go down the alleys with my little wagon. In Kansas, it was a dry state, but I’d go through trash cans and find liquor bottles and go, “Oh, they’re naughty. They drink.” I’d take these things back to my garage. It was a very early sense of gathering and gleaning objects.
I know your gleaning translates into a more holistic life philosophy for you. You speak about the objects you find with really powerful compassion.
I often make reference to the fact that this has been discarded, someone ran over it, it’s been thrown in the dumpster, it’s on the way to the landfill. I enjoy reconstructing it into my world and bringing it out into the universe for another life, another journey. There’s something about putting it back out in another configuration that’s very caring.
Color and composition are foundational to your process. What’s the lesson there?
I just did a workshop with 15 people. A lot of the other workshops at the conference are about technique. Everybody was eager to take a technique home. My group came together and made postcards. I wanted them to take paper, and collage their story together. What I’m trying to share with them is that they can be open to ideas and not be precious. Make mistakes, circle back around.
I was pushing and pulling with them to be more observant and also more loose and open. Everything doesn’t have to be perfect. It comes back to the playfulness.
Do you find yourself puzzling over the lifespan of the objects that you find? Where have these objects traveled before they reach you?
It’s interesting. This piece of copper that I buy in a sheet, I think, “How many lives did this piece of copper have?” It could have been stolen in the sixteenth century— a copper goblet—and then pilfered and taken away, then cut up and melted down, and hammered and maybe made into a tray, or a knife handle. How many different lives? How many wedding rings, or lockets? And now I have it here, and I can hammer it, I can bend it, I can melt it. That’s the magic about that.
There’s a dichotomy in your work, between craft techniques that have been passed down for generations and this radical, avant-garde use of materials.
There is that dichotomy in my work. Maybe that’s why they call me the outlaw. But I do work hard to honor the craft. The workshops were a little different then, but we have the same tools. Fire, melting, hammering. I go to the museums and I look at these pieces that were done in Italy or Nigeria and I think, “These are my brothers and sisters. They are a part of my family.”
When I lecture, I talk about that a lot. It’s something that I honor and feel very joyful about. My grandfather was German. My grandmother was Swiss. They had their own mom-and-pop tailor store.
I remember being 9 years old and watching my grandmother cutting the pattern, getting ready to do button holes. My grandfather pulling out the fabric. Connect the dots. Measuring. Stitching. Fitting. Getting everything perfect. So I do come from a family of makers. Craftsmanship and honoring that—and getting that across to the students—is a biggie.
The places you’ve lived—from North Carolina to Kansas to Norway—have such interesting and diverse craft histories. What are some of the things you learned from journeys?
I left the University of Kansas on a Fulbright to Norway, and then I went back as a Tiffany Grant honoree for another year, and then another as a guest designer. I think that during the Scandinavian design sensibility was coming into the United States in the 1950s. The highly polished silver bowls. Old textiles. Ceramics. Glass blowing.
Living there and going to school under the leadership of those craftsmen really honed me down into the “do it the right way” philosophy. I learned design sensibility and understood the beauty of the craftsmanship. Things being made just perfect.
When I got back, I did high-end commissions for presidents of universities and things for the temple or the church. Highly polished. I started feeling stifled. I was stuck in this one dance. It was very much a result of the Norwegian love affair. That’s when I started to peel the onion and become comfortable. Those were important years. They were the foundation.
When you’re in the process of composing a piece, how do you know it’s finished?
If I was being critical, I’d say I have a problem with editing. I have the tendency to overload. But I like it that way.
That would be my main criticism of my work. More doesn’t always make the piece stronger. Like, do I put pearls here, here, and here. Or just one? I’m constantly struggling with that.
You’re totally shaking up the hierarchy of objects, and the perceived value of different materials.
My work is not about intrinsic value. The value is my sense of design and my language.
When the Victoria & Albert Museum selected a piece of mine that’s on permanent display in their historic jewelry collection, it was nothing more than a paper necklace with decoupaged paper from the street and gold foil. It was not about something having high-end stones and precious metals. It was about celebrating design, and making a personal statement.
Click here to view more of Robert Ebendorf’s work, and stop by the form & concept shop to try it on!
Like the artists of Marvel Comics and DC, Albuquerque sculptor Elana Schwartz is a universe builder. Just after high school, she started creating whimsical characters by tearing apart stuffed animals and stitching them back together. She picked up wood carving at the University of New Mexico, and the material brought her characters to life in a new way. Suddenly, complete story arcs were forming around the figures that she carved. Inspired by the mythologies of cultures from around the world, she envisioned her characters as a pantheon of fantastical deities.
Schwartz’s colorful characters will be in good company at form & concept’s Superhero Masquerade: One-Year Anniversary Celebration this Friday. At the special event, we’re challenging visitors to dress like superheroes for the chance to win special prizes and partake in a VIP breakfast cereal bar. Read our interview with Elana below, and come meet her at the Superhero Masquerade on Friday, May 26, 5-8 pm. She’ll present new artwork in our One-Year Anniversary Exhibition, which debuts at the party.
Tell us about growing up in Albuquerque, and how you were influenced by the confluence of cultures here.
Growing up in New Mexico, I learned a lot about Native American and Hispanic Catholic cultures. The anthropomorphic, human-animal deities of Native American cultures and the retablos and scenes from Christian and Catholic religion have informed my work. I also am inspired by the Hindu and Buddhist religions.
Why is religious iconography so inspiring to you?
The gods and deities imbue so much meaning into these pictures or sculptures. Someone’s feelings can be so affected by just being near that sculpture or picture. I was inspired because I wanted to make something that could have a fraction of that impact on someone that’s looking at it.
When did you decide you wanted to be an artist?
I didn’t even know I wanted to be a fine artist until after high school. I was always into art and creating. I would sketch and make things in clay, but I didn’t know I wanted to be an artist until I started creating dolls and puppets after high school. I actually went to college for psychology, and decided to switch to fine art because I spent all my time making art instead of studying.
Tell us about those early characters you were creating.
Right after high school I started making little creatures out of just about anything. I would go to the thrift store and buy stuffed animals and cut them up. I’d use fur and Sculpey and wire. I was really into making specific characters come alive. That’s what inspired me to start making art in the first place, this idea of creating another life.
When did wood carving enter into your artistic practice?
I went to UNM for my last few years of college, and I did a sculpture class with my professor Steve Barry. We could use whatever materials we wanted for this project, which was supposed to be a narrative. I decided to use wood, and created a little man on a whale. That was my first wood piece.
I just loved the process of reductive carving. It’s such a meditative process, because you have to keep cutting in until your figure starts to show in the wood. To me, that just became an addictive thing.
So even in that very first project, you were able to envision a form within the block?
Yes. When I see a block of of wood I know what I want to create. I can see a figure or a gesture in the wood, and then I just carve away the other parts of the wood.
What’s your favorite thing about wood as an artistic medium?
I love working with wood because it’s a natural material. I love creating something so that in the last phase, you can really see the wood grain come out. I’m taking something that already has a life and spirit of its own, and creating something else from it. It’s like I’m transferring the energy that’s already there.
Lately, you’ve been incorporating different kinds of wood, inlaid stones and event taxidermy animals into your sculptures. Tell us about the array of materials you’re using.
I started working with wood, but I wanted to incorporate different mediums. It adds a little more interest to me. For example, I like adding pops of color using gems and minerals.
It happens to be that I love doing taxidermy, and taxidermy goes really well with wood. Those things both happen to go really well with inlay, and different kinds of wood, and crushed turquoise and gems. I put them all together to create my new style.
You dream up complex mythologies for your characters. How did that element of your work develop?
I got really into creating these universes where my characters were interacting with each other on different levels. They deal with deep moral and universal issues that everyone can relate to.
Do they all exist in the same universe, or are they involved in different stories?
I would like to think of all my creations as existing on the same pantheon of gods and deities and characters that interact in that world.
How does that inform your own sense of spirituality?
I wasn’t raised religious and I don’t consider myself to be a specific religion. However, I do find peace of mind in creating my work. I’ve come to the conclusion that creating art has become a religion for me.
When your sculptures are together in a room, it’s almost like they’re onstage. Does that resonate with you?
Definitely. I like them to look like they’re in the middle of a great scene. Maybe the final scene of an opera. This is the most dramatic moment of their lives.
Do you ever wish you could slip through the veil and exist in this world?
Absolutely. I often wish that I could be part of this reality that I’m creating. But I have to exist in this world in order to create the other world, unfortunately.
How do viewers react to the storytelling element of the work?
A lot of people ask me detailed questions about the mythology. But you know, I make my mythology pretty vague for a reason. I want people to create their own histories and mythologies with the piece that they interact with and are attracted to. I’d like for them to be able build from mine. People that see them can add to and change that history. I like to hear other people’s interpretations of the work.
I create these characters and put them into the world. From there, they kind of fly free. They create their own destinies and tell their own stories that are apart from me. There’s nothing I want to do to get in the way of that.
Click here to browse all of Elana Schwartz’s artwork, and make sure to RSVP on Facebook for our Superhero Masquerade: One-Year Anniversary Celebration on Friday, May 26, 5-8 pm.
You could call Wesley Anderegg‘s earthenware figures superheroes, though they’re (mostly) not the kind with masks or capes. Anderegg depicts everyday heroes, and their gap-toothed grins are evidence of their grit. “They’ve been through some hard knocks, but they are survivors, still doing their thing day in and day out,” the California artist says.
Anderegg is originally from Arizona, and started his art career making functional ceramics. He’s a lifelong people watcher, so his subject matter inevitably shifted into the figurative realm. Watch our video interview above, and scroll down to read the full conversation and learn how Anderegg developed his idiosyncratic sculptural style.
Speaking of superheroes, form & concept celebrates its first anniversary on May 26 with a Superhero Masquerade. Anderegg will appear at the opening, and his work will be on view in our One-Year Anniversary Exhibition. Make sure to wear a superhero costume to the event, which will feature a costume contest and VIP cereal bar (costume required for VIP cereal bar entry).
Did you make art when you were a kid?
No, I wasn’t an artsy kid. Not at all. I was a baseball player, beer drinker and motorcycle racer growing up.
Do you think growing up in Arizona has influenced your ceramics work?
The desert colors definitely influenced me. My palette is always earthen colors. I don’t go for crazy magenta, it’s just all ochres and red irons and black. That’s more my palette.
So you’ve always resisted using bright colors?
Yep. If it’s too bright, I run the other way. Lemon yellow is not going to happen. I gotta make it ochre, you know?
You studied geology for your undergraduate degree. When did art enter the picture?
I was working on the oil fields up in Wyoming, and I had all of these miserable jobs. My mom said, ‘Why don’t you go to school?’ I said, ‘Sure, sign me up.’ She signed me up and she picked my major, and that was it. She thought I could become a schoolteacher and I’d have a decent job.
I was a junior when I took a ceramics class as an elective, and that was it. I knew. That was the first art class I’d ever had in my whole life. I was petrified going in there, because I thought, ‘Everybody’s going to be so good, and I don’t know anything.’ Everybody was a beginner, so I felt right at home.
Why do you think you fell in love with ceramics so quickly?
I’ve got super good hand-eye coordination, from sports. I’m really good with my hands. The clay, it came easier to me than probably most people. I worked really hard, too. I loved it. I made more work my first semester than the rest of the class combined. I was in there all night, every night of the week, just learning how to throw on the potter’s wheel. I wanted to learn how to do it.
So you graduated with a degree in geology. How did you start your career as an artist?
Every summer, I would go to California and I’d live in my van on the beach. I’d save up $500, and I’d get in my ’65 Volkswagen van and I’d drive it over to California, and I’d live on the streets in my van at the beach. While I was doing that, I realized that I didn’t want any kind of straight job. I didn’t want to be in the mainstream of America.
I thought, ‘If I could just make pots and have a little shack by the beach and maybe sell something here or there, that sounds great.’ When I graduated, I just set up a studio and went to work.
Did you have any reservations about diving straight into it?
I was young and naive. The doubts didn’t even enter my mind. I said, ‘I’m going to make this work, come hell or high water. I’m just going to do this.’ But I also knew that I had to make a product that sold. When I was starting out, I was trying to make stuff that people liked.
I just put all that money away, and after about 7 years I was totally sick of being this little machine and pumping out these pots. So I started making the figurative stuff. I started pinching these little cups with faces on them.
Tell us more about the early figurative work.
When me and my wife first started going out, we would go to the bar and we would drink kamikazes and stuff like that. I started making these shot glasses that had these crazy faces on them and were all bent up. Before that, all I had ever done was throw on the potter’s wheel.
The faces were really ugly, but I kind of liked them ugly. So did everybody else. They were really gnarly, and I was kind of angst-ridden, and I wanted to express my gnarly-isms, you know? People liked them, so I just took off on those. They even had the funky teeth and everything back then. I didn’t want anything cutesy.
At some point after that, I stopped making cups and they became sculpture.
Why were the original pieces so grotesque?
I was an angry young man. I had a lot of stuff I wanted to get out. It was therapy, you know? It was a cathartic process to vent all this stuff.
They were autobiographical, and emotionally how I was feeling. How do you explain feeling like you’re being torn apart? You actually tear somebody apart. Or I had people sucking my blood. I would create mosquitoes and ticks, making that reference of people sucking you dry. All these little narratives were filtering through my work.
Were any of them portraits?
Some of them are based on real people, like heroes or interesting folks. A lot of them represent me, but emotionally what I’m doing or going through.
A lot of your figures are in danger!
They often are in peril. That’s what I’m drawn to. I like characters. The beautiful people don’t interest me at all. I like the funky people, and the people that are going to tell you just what they think. Those are the people I gravitate towards.
Tell us about your studio.
We live on a 22-acre ranch in the middle of nowhere in California. My studio is a 10-stall horse barn that is 60 x 40 feet. It’s 2,400 square feet on the bottom floor, and then there’s a second story. It’s a wonderful structure.
Does it feel like you always have a little audience, with all of your work surrounding you?
Sometimes there’s more of a crowd depending on how much work’s around. Everybody’s got eyes, and everybody’s hanging out. It doesn’t bother me, but I think some people get creeped out by it.
Speaking of the eyes, they’re so realistic! Why are the faces and bodies so stylized, while the eyes have this realism to them?
The eyes take me time. I do it for two reasons. One is because I like the reality of it. Two, people think you know what you’re doing after you’re technically tight enough. The rest of my work can be pretty loose, but I let people know that I’m doing this looseness because I want to. I’m going to give you some tightness here in the eyes, just for you.
What’s the range of reactions you get to your work?
There’s all kinds of reactions. Some people get the humor and laugh, and other people punch their partner and say, ‘Oh god, look at this shit, man! Bleeeeh!’ You can tell if they get it or if they don’t, it’s really funny. I like it that way, because it means that you’re not middle-of-the-road.
My wife is a potter. She makes beautiful pottery. When we were on a residency at Anderson Ranch Art Center, people would come in our studio and would either walk right past my work and talk to Donna, or they would ignore Donna and talk to me about my work. There was nobody who liked us both.
How would you boil down your artistic philosophy?
Everything that I try to put out there is genuine to me. It’s my stuff, I’m not looking for other influences. I’m just trying to talk to people about my existence.
Generally, I think that as people, we have so much in common but nobody really thinks we do. We’ve all been heartbroken, we’ve all lost loved ones. All different circumstances, but we all share all these emotions. That’s all part of being human, you know? We share that. How do you express that, and relay that to people?
We’re so much more alike than we are different, but nobody wants to talk about that, especially in today’s climate. You don’t think exactly like I do, but I’m sure we could agree on something.
Do your works look like you?
If you look at me, you’ll see the resemblance. Actually I have really good teeth, but my face is pretty haggard. I’ve got way too many wrinkles already, but that’s just the way it goes. (laughs)
We’re excited to announce that Debra Baxter is joining form & concept as our newest represented artist! Debra has exhibited her DB/CB Jewelry line in our gallery shop since we opened, and her sculptures were featured in our ReFashion group show. We visited her studio in Eldorado late last year, and had a wide-ranging conversation about her jewelry and sculpture practices.
Debra is originally from Nebraska, and earned her MFA from Bard College. She lived in Seattle for 18 years, but made a big move to Santa Fe in August 2015. While she was in Washington State, she created a series of crystal brass knuckles and other wearable sculptures that went viral online and landed one of the works in the Smithsonian Collection (read about it in our previous blog post about Debra). For this special announcement, we spoke with Debra about coming to New Mexico, experimenting with new materials and other fascinating topics.
Check it out below, and make sure to check out Debra’s new work in the form & concept collection. If you’re in Santa Fe, her sculptures are on view now in our upstairs galleries.
Have you always been creatively inclined?
I’ve pretty much been interested in art since birth, and naturally been drawn to it. I happen to be pretty good at it. Early on in life, it was mostly drawing. I just kind of stood out in that way, and I’ve always wanted to be an artist.
Did you have a lot of collections as a child?
Throughout my life, I’ve had rock collections. My mom has a pretty good one, too. My late grandma was a science teacher, and her husband was an electrical engineer. They had a lot of samples from her science class, so I got some of those that say what mineral it is. I don’t know that I’ve collected found objects so much as just rocks.
Tell us about your move to New Mexico, and how it has influenced your work.
I had been in Seattle 18 years, so it was a little painful because I love a lot of people there and have a really strong community there. But I was really ready for sun. I think Santa Fe is this crazy, magical place and probably one of the most beautiful places in the world. I just went to a conference, and when I told people I was from Santa Fe, they were like, “You get to live there?” It’s an honor to be able to live here. It’s kind of a miracle. Me and my husband worked so hard to figure out how he could get a job and we could do this.
A lot of people have asked me, ‘How has living in New Mexico changed your work?’ One of the main ways has been working in bronze and having access to a foundry. I also got a residency at Bullseye Glass there, so I’ve been able to access new materials and people. I think it might take time to figure out how it totally influences my work. It would be more obvious if I was a landscape painter, but it has definitely influenced my well-being. I feel like I have a really high quality of life. I don’t ever sit in traffic. That’s amazing, if you’ve lived in Seattle.
Give us a rundown of the materials you’re using in your sculptural work right now.
Sculpturally, I work in a lot of materials. If I tried to reel it in to make a list, it would be alabaster, bronze, iron, crystals and minerals, wood, glass. They’re all pretty traditional sculptural materials. I’m drawn to permanency and things that will last, but I have this longing for tradition. I’m trying to take something traditional, and use it in a very strange, new way.
It’s quite an arsenal! You work with so many contrasting materials.
I really like combining materials that make no sense together. Like having crystal shoot out of alabaster. If I embed it well enough, people believe they actually grew out of the alabaster. I kind of love that I can actually make it almost look natural.
How do materials play into the concepts you’re exploring?
A lot of it is about materiality, and how much I love beautiful crystals and minerals and metal. Most recently, I’ve been exploring glass casting at Bullseye Glass, because I have a residency there. Content-wise, I’ve been interested in this idea of vulnerability. Partially in theory embracing vulnerability, but then the strength that can come from the bravery it takes to be vulnerable. You wouldn’t guess that by looking at this, but a lot of my pieces are purely formal. I like playing with beautiful objects and trying to solve a puzzle with how to put them together.
So you’re using the parameters of your materials as a kind of creative inspiration.
It’s good for my brain. I really enjoy the puzzle. I get really excited when I have pieces where I need to figure out the solution to make it visually nice. I find it super fun to try to problem solve, by getting this back from the glass studio and saying, ‘Now what do I do with it? It’s gorgeous, what is it?’
How did you develop an interest in the concept of vulnerability and power?
At Bard College, my thesis was partially written about this whole idea of vulnerability and how it could turn into power. Years later, there’s this writer and researcher, Brené Brown, who talks about how the only way to make leaps in your life is to be vulnerable, and how much we hate it.
When I’m in the middle of something horrible that makes me feel vulnerable, I’m usually not having a good time. But in order to make the jumps in life, you have to make yourself vulnerable. To fall in love with someone, you have to open your heart. That’s terrifying, because they could just destroy you. And I have been destroyed. But it’s such a big part of being a whole human. Brené Brown calls it “whole-hearted.”
I’m a really sappy, sentimental person. When I love, I love really hard. I think in some ways, it’s okay for that to come through in my work. It’s not cool to be sentimental in the conceptual art world, necessarily. But I just really believe that power can come through being vulnerable, even though when it’s happening, I despise it. I just think it’s really interesting that there’s research that backs that up. Brené Brown has done all these studies that back up how much you need to be vulnerable to grow.
I think I always have been drawn to delicate, breakable materials. Using fragile materials to talk about fragility makes sense. I had a glass balloon that was broken, and I built it all back together in this show I had in 2009. It was called False Hope.
I’ve always been interested in that, even though something like bronze is very solid. But that’s part of why I love glass and I’ve always loved glass, is that the material itself is vulnerable. It makes it tricky to work with, and tricky to show.
How do you feel about your recent explorations with glass casting?
It’s kind of a discovery. There’s this mathematical equation for figuring out how much glass needs to be in the cast. I’m kind of playing with what happens if you don’t put enough in. It makes a cool edge if it’s just dripping. It drips in the kiln, and it might make a cool shape and might not.
I’m pretty into these accidents. I’m really more interested in not doing things the right way, which drives some people crazy about me. But I think with the experiments, sometimes you discover more than if you were trying to totally control the process.
Have you made connections with glass artists through your residency?
I am starting to collaborate with a glass artist in Oakland, California. She sent me some of her duds that I’m trying to make something out of. We went back and forth, because I wanted her to blow glass on one of my alabaster sculptures, but then we both realized that it would probably crack and destroy the alabaster.
Tell us about your found object sculptures.
Some of it falls into this Duchampian history of found objects in sculpture. Once he started using found objects, that changed everything. I started noticing that I’m drawn to similar objects and shapes. I’m very interested in natural materials. I did a project called 100 Days of Sculpture, where I made a sculpture every day for 100 days. Those are 90% found, because you can’t carve a piece of alabaster in a day, every day. What was interesting about that project was that I was always looking for objects. I’m just like that now.
How do you feel when the materials you’re working with suddenly fit together into a piece?
Oh man, it’s so exciting. When I’m working with different pieces, and when they actually fit together, you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, it worked!’ I love that process, and that’s part of what was fun about 100 Days of Sculpture, is to play with these objects every day. It’s all about experimentation. There isn’t a right way to do things, so you need to trust your intuition.
“I touched each one, and decided each one was worthy,” says Heather Bradley. She’s standing above a canopy of ceramics, clustered on a long table in her studio. The elegant porcelain vessels she’s created represent over a year of her artistic output, and some of the last pieces have just emerged from the kiln. “I think of them as ‘the family,'” she explains. “Today, some of them are meeting the other ones for the first time. It feels complete.”
Heather is originally from Tennessee, and studied art history at the University of West Florida. She first came to New Mexico on the National Student Exchange, completing an BFA in painting at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. “I was just going to stay for a semester, and then I stayed for a year, and then I decided to stay here for the rest of my life,” she says. After completing her MFA in Ceramics at NMSU Las Cruces, she moved to Santa Fe and has fostered a prolific career.
Now Heather is part of form & concept’s permanent stable of artists. During our studio visit, she talked about passing her 20th year of making ceramics, engaging with the New Mexico landscape, and confidently defying the expectations of the ceramics community. Read the full interview below, and make sure to browse Heather’s artwork in our online store.
You presented a brand new body of work for your first display at form & concept. Tell us about selecting the pieces.
I switched to porcelain about two years ago from stonework. I loved the porcelain so much that I wanted to, for the first time, not make many marks on the surface. But then when I started working with the porcelain, there was lots of cracking and breaking. It’s fragile. For each one that I chose in this body of work, there were probably three or four that didn’t make it. They either broke, or died, or weren’t worthy.
So this is the culmination of a long-term experiment?
It is. I’ve been hoarding these for a special show. I really wanted to show them together because I think of them as ‘the family.’ Today, some of them are meeting the other ones for the first time. It feels complete. I feel like the colors are talking to each other more now. The porcelain itself is just really new and special for me. I feel like I’m finally able to handle it.
What are some special considerations that you have to make when you’re working with porcelain, versus other mediums that you’ve worked with in the past?
You have to work faster, for one thing, because the porcelain won’t handle a lot of manhandling. It holds up for a certain time, and then it gets too wet and just flops. I have to go fast when I’m throwing it, but then when it’s drying it has to dry really slowly and carefully. I have to be patient with firing. I’ve had several that I fired too soon, that exploded because there was too much moisture.
I also have to be a bit more sensitive with my fingers. The porcelain has a memory. If I make one little move, if I sneeze or something while I’m touching it, then it remembers that. I just have to be really focused because the porcelain is so sensitive.
How does it feel when a piece explodes in the kiln. Is that a little tragedy, or is it just another casualty of your work?
I’ve had a lot of time to analyze those feelings. Just the other day, I opened the kiln and the top part of the kiln made me very happy. I was like, ‘Oh, those are beautiful.’ Then I could see shards around the edges. On the bottom part of the kiln, they were all exploded and broken. I felt awful. I don’t know how else to explain it, it’s very disheartening. I guess in a sense after you lose so many of them, the ones that I do have become a bit more precious, because they feel like survivors.
In your artist statement, you talk about finding these imperfections in the final products that give them their personality or essence. How do you balance that with your desire for perfection?
There’s something imperfect about each one. Maybe there’s a mark that I didn’t intend, or the hole isn’t perfectly circular. At first, I’ll say, ‘Oh, reject pile.’ But then it starts growing on me.
When I’m throwing, I feel like I’m always trying to do a variation on the same form. I try to find some perfection or get close to something that I feel is elegant, but it never quite happens.
I start to relate it to being human. There’s nothing perfect about any aspect of me. I can find an imperfection about every single thing, so I just kind of accept it with the work. I notice that when people interact with it, a lot of times it is the imperfections that they’re drawn to.
How do you feel when someone notices an imperfection like that, and falls in the love the piece because of it?
I’ve noticed that over the years. A lot of times I’ll show someone something, and I’ll start to apologize. I’ll say, “Oh, I don’t know what I was thinking at this point.” Or “It touched another piece in the kiln.” or “It has this mark on it that I didn’t intend.”
They would usually not really enjoy that apology, because that’s what they were connecting to. I’ve tried to also accept those imperfections, and see them as what makes it human-made rather than machine-made. That’s a good thing.
You’re originally from Tennessee. How did you end up out here?
I went to school in University of West Florida, and was studying art history. I wrote a paper about Georgia O’Keeffe, and then I came on a national student exchange. I chose New Mexico because of O’Keeffe. I went to New Mexico State in Las Cruces. I was just going to stay for a semester, and then I stayed for a year, and then I decided to stay here for the rest of my life.
You studied painting before you were in ceramics. How did that transition happen?
I was studying painting and I was also studying ceramics. One day I brought my ceramics to my painting critique, and it was a completely different response. Everyone in the room was like, “You should be doing this. You can keep [painting] but we don’t really care, but you should be doing this.”
It was a relief, because that’s where I really wanted to be. Painting felt more like labor, and ceramics was what I could do when I was finally finished painting. I took it as a sign, and started focusing more on ceramics. I got my BFA in painting, and my MFA in ceramics.
New Mexico seems like such a perfect place for a potter, because you can pick up the earth and shape it into something. The structures around us are made from the earth. Could you talk about connecting with this landscape, and the initial feeling of making pottery here?
In Las Cruces, I was definitely blown away by the landscape. It’s so different from Tennessee because you can really see the earth. There are a lot of ceramics going on down there too, so I was inspired by other potters. Being in Santa Fe, I spend a lot of time in the mountains. I went up Santa Fe Baldy a lot this summer. I feel a lot of connection with the sky, too. Some of the surfaces and colors of my ceramics are inspired by that connection with the sky. Sunset and sunrises.
Something about having your hands in the clay makes you feel more connected to the earth. With the porcelain, it feels so refined. It’s expensive clay, and you have to go to a particular store to buy it. Sometimes it doesn’t just feel like I have my hands in the mud, it feels like I have my hands in expensive, refined, imported materials.
Could you talk about your current thoughts on color, and how you chose the palette for this body of work?
I made some pieces before this that were all black and white. I worked in black and white for quite a while before I started adding the color. At first I felt a little bit afraid to use pastel colors, because there are a lot of cultural associations with pastels. I was worried that people were going to have a connection to pink in a different way than I saw it. But I just went with it, because there are a lot of these colors in nature.
There’s something about the subtlety of them that spoke to femininity for me. There’s a softness, but also the gradation of color reminds me of nature and things that happen on the ocean, and in the sky, and on rocks. I’ve always loved what copper can do, so there’s a lot of coppery colors. I feel like it’s a pretty broad palette. It kind of does cover the spectrum, but for me I needed them all to speak to each other. They needed to be balanced. It’s really nice to finally see them all together today.
They do feel like organic forms, perhaps eggs or seed pods. Was that part of the intention?
I can relate to the seed pod part. I’m definitely inspired by Native American ceramics, and the pots that have the tiny holes that they used for seed pots. I’ve always been drawn to close the top of the pot. I’ve spent so many hours of my life in pottery classes, where they were teaching me to make bowls and teapots and cups and plates. My teachers can’t make me keep the form open. I just can’t do it. I want to close the form, I think it creates a more sensual look to me.
Sometimes it reminds of the top of cathedral spires, or they have these beautiful Buddhist stupas that they use in graveyards that have this spirally top as well that inspire me. I don’t really think of things growing out of them, necessarily.
The work is just at the edge of being fully functional. You could put a flower in them, but you couldn’t fit a whole bouquet. Are you referencing functional pottery?
Yes, sometimes I’ll be really inspired by amphoras or different water vessels in Africa, or things that people use. I think there’s sort of a rebellion in me that’s like, “Try to use it. I don’t know, put a stick of incense into it.” I really just want them to be art.
You mentioned the “memory” of the pots earlier. Could you talk about your tactile memory when you’re making work, and also the memory that the pot itself preserves afterwards?
It’s interesting, because I’ve been noticing how long I’ve been doing this lately. I just turned 40, and I started doing it when I was 19. I’ve always closed the form, and all my teachers have tried to make me not close the form. A lot of time when I’ve been throwing the long necks, people will ask me how I do that, and I can’t really seem to put it in words. But my hands know, and I like that. I can take a break from the pottery, and it’s like riding a bike in a way. I’ll think maybe I’ve forgotten, but my fingers remember how to close the form
I think for each piece I make, it does sort of encapsulate a moment in time or a day. I can remember which ones I made when I first went to the studio, and what was happening in my life. The clay is so sensitive, and I can remember taking the needle tool and making that mark, and feeling like I have that freedom to mark the clay.
So, for you, the work really chronicles all sorts of moments in your life?
I do feel like that. It is almost a diary ,in a way. I have no idea if that’s conveyed to the audience or not, in any way. But this is a year and a half of my life. That’s how I feel.
What would you call that era in your life, if you had to label it?
I guess “40.” Turning 40 was like, “Whoa, good job me.” I stuck with it. I remember, when I first started when I was 19, walking back from pottery classes and feeling so defeated. It was something I wanted to be so good at, but my hands were incompetent, and I was so aware that I was incompetent. But I had to keep doing it. This year, I realized that I don’t feel that way anymore. That was nice.
Come view Heather’s new work in form & concept’s upstairs gallery, and click over to our online store to see the whole collection.
“This is my new studio, and I’m super excited about it,” Debra Baxter says, ushering us out of the cold and into a well-heated garage space. Debra moved to Santa Fe from Seattle a little over a year ago, and recently got a house in El Dorado. The previous owner was a car collector, and custom-built the garage to house his prized possessions. Now it’s brimming with a very different array of treasures.
We weave through a forest of pedestals with sculptures perched on them and stop beside a table covered in glimmering gems and minerals. Debra earned her MFA in sculpture from Bard College in 2008, and maintains a robust artistic practice. While she was in grad school, she had a creative breakthrough and started making jewelry as well. We’ve exhibited her work in form & concept’s gallery shop since our opening last August.
This Friday, December 16 from 5-7 pm, we’re hosting a special reception in celebration of Debra’s jewelry line, DB/CB. We sat down with Debra to talk about taking the leap from sculpture to jewelry, turning her collectors in superheroes, and other fascinating topics. Make sure to RSVP to Debra’s event on Facebook, and come to form & concept on Friday to meet Debra! We’re offering a 10% discount on all purchases that evening.
How did you take the leap from sculpture to jewelry?
In January of 2007, I had a solo show in New York City at Massimo Audiello. I was purely making sculpture, and starting to cast some things out of bronze. I had a sterling silver tongue that I made. Two years later, I made these crystal brass knuckles. It was kind of supposed to be a joke. It’s something that heals you and could hurt you at the same time. I thought it was this ironic, hilarious thing. When you make something, you don’t think that much other than realizing your vision. The brass knuckles turned into this insane phenomenon on the Internet. There’s still memes going. That was my first piece of jewelry that I made.
After that, I kind of started sliding into this area where I was adding crystals and minerals to my work. I kind of realized with the crystal brass knuckles how potent these things could be when they’re actually on your body. I started making necklaces after that. I made some rings, but mostly big, crystal necklaces.
It can be difficult to make a big switch like that.
Whenever I’ve made a weird jump or breakthrough in my work, I have to turn off the part of me that’s like, ‘Why are you doing this? You don’t make jewelry.’ You just have to start doing it and ignore that voice. That’s one thing I learned from grad school, is to trust your gut, and to go and research different directions that may or may not make sense.
I was spending all day, every day in my studio making jewelry for a while. I thought I was just going to have one sale, and that was it. I wanted to go to New York to see my best friend for her dog’s bar mitzvah. I’m not even kidding. That’s what it was for, to fund this trip. Now I can’t stop, because it’s so fun to make them. Because there’s so much thinking and staring at sculpture, and trying to solve a problem, it’s nice to just make something with my hands and much more easily solve a problem.
How did you go from experimenting with making jewelry to starting your line, DB/CB?
You start something and say, ‘Oh, I’m just making a few of these. It’s no big deal.’ And then at some point I’m like, ‘I’m opening an online store.’ I had so many hits on my website from the crystal brass knuckles at the time. People were finding my jewelry when I wasn’t advertising or doing anything. I had magazines from Japan emailing me. It was bizarre. I still don’t understand it, the Internet is fascinating. DB/CB actually stands for Debra Baxter/Crystal Bomb.
A curator, Nora Atkinson, used to live in Seattle, where I used to live. She put together this show called Making Mends at the Bellevue Art Museum, and I had several pieces in the show. She got this job as the Renwick’s curator, which is the Smithsonian’s museum of craft. She emailed me and said, ‘Do you have any more of those brass knuckles? They’re very un-Smithsonian, and that’s why I like them. They’re very punk rock.’ That’s how that happened, and it took about a year to get it in there. Now they’re in the permanent collection forever, as far as I know, next to some mind-blowing artists that I can’t even believe I’m anywhere near.
You’ve referred to making sculptures as “solving a puzzle.” Do you apply the same process to your jewelry?
It’s a little less puzzling, the jewelry. If there’s any puzzle, it’s me building the space around each rock to make it the most interesting and beautiful and highlighted. The jewelry’s more about my obsession with crystals and minerals, and how much I love them, and how astonishing it is that they came from the earth and naturally look like this.
Are all of your jewelry materials from the natural world?
A couple pieces might have less natural things. This necklace that I’m wearing is plated with titanium, but for the most part they’re natural. That’s part of what gets me very excited. And my husband’s a geologist, so what do you know.
What are your collectors’ reactions to the jewelry pieces?
I like that when people buy them, they feel empowered by the stone that’s in them. I’ve had several people email me. Maybe they went to a job interview and felt like they nailed it because they wore this large labradorite necklace. Or one did a presentation in Chicago with this huge crystal necklace. They email me later, and say that believing in the power of this necklace made the good thing happen. I think that’s pretty amazing.
A few years ago, this woman who’s a curator from Portland came to my studio. She has synesthesia, which is when your senses are all mixed up. She could hardly be in my studio. There’s so much energy coming out. I thought it was super interesting.
So they transform people into superheroes!
They’re like mini shields. They have this shape of the Superman insignia. One of my early pieces was a hyperventilation bag made of carved alabaster, with crystals blowing out the side. It was all about having the vulnerability and turning it into power. The crystals all stemmed from Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, which was made of crystals. It’s about the power of crystals in this kind of cartoony, comic book way, and then in reality, the various properties that people believe they have. I believe in some of them. It just makes it fascinating to me.
What are some of your favorite gems?
I like malachite, because sometimes it has this really strange, crystalline structure that looks like feathers. It’s very delicate. Every once in a while, there’s a malachite that’s a totally different shape.
I’m super in love with rose quartz. I really think it has this strong, lovey-gush energy. I sell a lot around Valentine’s Day. Of all the stones that strike me as having a real energy or vibration, rose quartz really is strong for me. So is clear quartz. The clearer the quartz, the better it’s supposed to amplify energy.
A stone that I wear sometimes is angel aura or opal aura. It has a titanium coat on it that was made in a vacuum chamber. It’s a chemistry experiment. They start out natural quartz, and then they get colored.
How do you pick new gems or minerals to use? Do you envision how they would fit into a piece?
I’m really picky about what I use. I don’t always buy them in person, but it’s more helpful to me if I can see them in person.
There is some practicality to it. It’s helpful if it’s flat, so that it could fit into a necklace. I’m really about finding a really special stone that’s going to make something that is going to make you feel stronger.
Have you had a “super powered” experience with one of your pieces?
When I was driving across the country, I wore an angel aura necklace every day because I wanted my support system. If I had any angels watching over me, I wanted them to be with me while I was traveling.
I also sometimes wear turquoise when I’m traveling, because it’s supposed to give you luck when you’re on a journey. I just love that, because I think even for me, whether it’s true or not, if I’m wearing it I’ll start believing it. Then I’ll feel better. It could be a placebo, but when people email me and tell me they wear it for something important, that’s awesome.
Is it hard to let go of the jewelry that you’ve worn on different adventures?
I usually can let things go, but it’s a little harder with the jewelry in some ways. I get really attached to the stone in it, and how it looks. Someone just bought an angel aura piece, and I told her the story of me wearing it on this road trip, and how I thought it gave me power and energy. I think that’s part of what made her want it, because she bought the one that I was wearing. I just wanted her to know that story and what I felt like it had done for me. Sometimes it’s just time to let go of things.
This doesn’t always happen, but I like to know who buys them or to have a personal relationship. That can’t happen always when you have stores, but it’s almost like you can see what the person needs and what might click with them, and help them find the right stone.
Tell us more about the difference between your jewelry design and sculpting processes.
I like my jewelry because I’m kind of self-taught. There’s certain things I do that a jeweler would be like, ‘Why would you do it that way?’ I think because I don’t know the right way, I take risks that are non-traditional and then discover something more interesting.
For example, I finish my jewelry with an angle grinder, which something that you would normally use to cut metal or stone. I do have to wear protective gloves so I don’t cut my thumb off. It’s true.
Come meet Debra Baxter and see her latest jewelry work at form & concept on Friday, December 16 from 5-7 pm. Click here to RSVP on Facebook, and learn more on our website.
Heidi Brandow is one of form & concept’s newly represented artists. Her artwork appears in our 4 New Artists display, along with the creations of Heather Bradley, Matthew Mullins and Wesley Anderegg.
“My sons had this intense Titanic phase. Everything was Titanic,” says Heidi Brandow. She’s showing us around her living room, which hosts a family lineage of artworks. Just below a long, colorful mixed media piece by Brandow, there’s a row of smaller panels featuring soldiers, science fiction characters and the Unsinkable Ship. “Zozobra is another big influence,” Heidi says. “They’ve done Star Wars, World War I, World War II.”
Heidi’s sons have inherited her ability to distill myriad cultural influences into playful, powerful creations. The Santa Fe artist hails from a long line of Native Hawaiian singers, musicians and performers on her mother’s side, and Dinè storytellers and medicine people on her father’s side. Her pursuit of an artistic career came naturally; she is a graduate of the Institute of American Indian Arts, and has studied design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and the Istanbul Technical University.
In her adventures across the country and around the globe, Heidi has discovered a vast multicultural palette from which she draws aesthetic and conceptual inspiration. She has a long-running series of mixed media panels that feature mischievous monsters, which point to the Superflat movement and street art aesthetics. Another series chronicles our interactions with the Internet to explore contemporary conceptions of virtual reality.
“I knew from an early age that our native identity is so rich that we shouldn’t just hold it to a specific ceremony or spiritual practice,” Heidi says. “In my eyes, art is a tool that helps mark history, time, place and memory. Who’s to say pop culture, and Facebook and Instagram, are not equally as important as star sticks that were made a long time ago to track the different star patterns?” As she works on a new composition at her dining room table, Heidi discusses her cultural heritage, her diverse influences, and the unique motivations behind her varied artistic pursuits:
What’s the first step of your process?
I’ll often just start composing directly on the panel. I might do some light sketching if it’s a figure or character that I haven’t used before, just to get an idea of what that would look like. Generally, I do all of it on the surface.
This series is a really nice way for me to utilize these characters or images that I’ve been working with for a long time, and try to superimpose them, or make them work with these crazy, mixed-up patterns.
How do you dream up these characters?
Initially, all of them came out of sketches. I grew up in Hawaii, and there’s a huge Asian and Japanese influence there. That environment exposed me to this aesthetic that I really loved. Everything from their candy wrappers to their sodas to their magazines had this bubble gum kind of appeal. There are all of these insane, weird characters, but also very simplified forms. That’s something that just never left me. Over the years, I would create these little guys, and keep this ongoing sketchbook of them. It wasn’t until about 13 years ago that I finally decided to start making work with them, rather than just doing it as a fun thing.
Do the monsters have names, or story lines?
For me personally, they don’t have names, and there’s no story behind any of them. I try not to put too much of my own self into them. I don’t want to over personalize it. These are a nice outlet for me to create work that is lighthearted, that is easy. It’s very fluid. I feel like when people see it, they get it immediately. Whether you like it or you don’t like it, it’s a visceral thing. It’s not too theory-based.
I want my work to reach everyone. I don’t come from a community or people that are heavy academicians. In fact, I would argue that the art world has largely blocked out people of color from participating in art to a large extent.
On the other hand, I think a lot of the work I do is a little heavier. This is a nice outlet, where I can just make work that is more lighthearted and fun.
All of the works in this series feature collage elements. Where do you source your materials?
A lot of times if I’m traveling, I’ll try to collect papers from wherever I’m going or wherever I’ve been. It could be anything. I like to accumulate stuff from wherever we go, because I feel like when I add that to the pieces, they’re a little footprint. At least for me, they leave some traces of places that I’ve been or experiences I may have had. Of course, some of them may be directly referencing a specific period, or I just like the way it looks.
It sounds like there’s some autobiographical significance to your work, but it’s subtle.
I have such a weird thing about this personal narrative situation. When I was in college studying art—I don’t know how everybody teaches, or what other programs look like—but I feel like that whole narrative thing was so abused. I get it that these are tools that people use to create meaning, and maybe that meaning comes from very personal experiences. But I don’t know that everything has to be that way.
I feel like a lot of female artists, maybe they’re held up to a little bit more of a, “Well, she’s female so it must have some kind of narrative. It must mean something. It must have this intense personal story.” Are we asking the same questions with male artists? I guess I’m just at odds with it. I question it a lot.
You are a descendant of musicians and storytellers. Is there a performative element to your art practice?
I do like interacting with people. I’ll talk to my clients, or interact with people at events. I’m often really surprised at the people that I meet. I’m really excited when I see that the demographic of people that are into it is so broad. To be able to create work that transcends those cultural and social and economic boundaries, that’s what I want. I think that’s why I’m surprised. I’m like, “Wow, this old man’s into it, that little kid’s into it. Let’s hang out!”
When I meet some of them, I’m like, “Wow, we would never, ever talk in any other context.” Maybe that’s a purely economic situation or something. This is what it’s about, is making those connections, breaking down those barriers, being a part of something that makes people feel happy, feel satisfied. That fuels the stuff that I do.
How does your own cultural heritage figure into your work?
I never entered the art scene on the basis of promoting myself or my work as Native art. Not because I was shying away from it, but because my idea of Native art was a lot of very cultural referenced work, such as very specific tribal motifs and designs. The stuff that I was doing wasn’t like that. I never felt weird about it, because I always felt like my Native identity is already in this work, whether or not there’s symbols or direct references to cultural place. The simple fact that I’m Native and that this is the work that I’m making, there’s no way of denying my heritage and my experience, or saying that it’s not implicitly in the work. I don’t believe it has to have direct references to culture and place.
Culturally Native people are so diverse and our experience is so diverse. If you look at someone like myself, being Native Hawaiian and Navajo or Dinè, they’re two entirely different cultures. They’re both Native, but it’s ocean and desert people. That’s only the first difference, right? Of course we have a lot of similar cultural values, but it’s like night and day in a lot of ways.
What are some of your contemporary influences?
I really love Takashi Murakami, and the whole Superflat movement. I follow a few street artists on Instagram. One of them is a guy I discovered in Turkey, maybe three years ago. His name on Instagram is Leo Lunatic, and he repeatedly uses this Panda icon. You’ll see it all over Istanbul. I started documenting these, so every time I go back, I’ll find new ones.
I feel like in some ways he’s doing similar things to what I’m doing. He uses this icon of a panda, which we all associate as being cute and cuddly and friendly. But they all have this grimace. There’s this weird, almost suspicious nature about them. I like that play on something that looks really cute, but then you’re like, ‘Well, I don’t know.’ He’s really on top of trends and design, so I see him incorporating a lot of different patterns into his work recently.
Tell us more about your artistic pursuits in Turkey.
My relationship with Turkey is pretty intense. It’s a place that I love. I would even go so far as to say that I consider it my second home. The friends and people that I’ve met there are amazing, and there’s many places that I love when I’m there. Moreover, I feel like that region, those people, have such a respect for Native people. I think that’s why I feel this connection with them. I think it was important to make that connection between people that are displaced and understanding that my heritage, my cultural background, isn’t that far removed from their experience in a way.
I recently worked on a photography project in Turkey. In one of my visits a few years ago, I was really struck by how many refugees were living there in the streets. It just broke my heart. The most troubling thing was that back here, nobody knew this was going on. I remember I went to go pick up my sons one day, and I was telling their friend’s mom about it. I was like, “I have to go work on this photo project in Turkey, and I’m going to be documenting refugees.” She was like, “What do you mean?” She had zero idea that this was happening.
I feel like Native people to a certain extent have been refugees in their own homeland, and there’s a lot of forced migration that’s happened. You only have to go back two generations, to our great grandparents. It’s that solidarity of knowing that history, and feeling like, “Wow, this is happening in real time to people.” I get it, I see that, and I want other people to know that.
So I took this really heavy topic, and tried to find a way to relate it to anyone. I had the refugees talk about their definitions of home. That’s such an easy idea to relate to, and it means several things to everyone. It was a way to get the conversation going. Maybe I don’t necessarily impose my own narrative on the work that I’m creating, but I collect a lot of things from other people and use it in my work, or use it to inspire me to create more work. I love hearing other people’s stories.
At the other end of the spectrum from these real world issues, you’ve been exploring virtual reality in your work. (Click here and here for examples of this series.)
This body of work, which is still untitled, is dealing with the concept of virtual reality. I started using these diagram images in my work a few years ago. I studied industrial design, and that background really influenced my work. It gave me an interest in these diagrams that we create in patent designs. I’m very curious about the idea of manufactured realities, and how much we participate in that.
The psychology behind virtual reality is interesting. Why is it something that exists, and what are some extensions of what that means? What are some smaller modifications that we do in our daily life, that maybe imply the same interests in alternate realities? I’m really intrigued with social media. I question how people manufacture their own existence on these platforms.
I don’t have answers, just more questions. Our actual realities oftentimes are not as glamorous or fun. I don’t know if the day-to-day is ever that exciting or exhilarating. But we don’t want to see you just laying around. This is why all of these people who have never contributed to society are famous. They give this appearance of this fabulous lifestyle, and I think we are so stressed in our day-to-day that these weird, one second breaks are all it takes. That’s what feeds us.
You can experience Heidi Brandow’s work in our 4 New Artistsdisplay, on view now at form & concept. Click here to browse all of her new artwork.
Matthew Mullins is one of form & concept’s newly represented artists. His artwork will appear in our 4 New Artists opening reception on Friday, October 28 from 5-8 pm, along with the creations of Heather Bradley, Heidi Brandow and Wesley Anderegg.
“When we moved here, I was so excited that I’d be working in a greenhouse,” says Matthew Mullins. “There’s so much light, and also the possibility of actually growing some things in here.” He’s tending to the small jungle that occupies one corner of his home studio, just off Canyon Road in Santa Fe. Surrounding the real greenery, there’s a series of mixed media paintings that echo the natural patterns of the plants. Matt starts by painting a landscape or natural detail in watercolor, and then overlays a human-made pattern—like a quilt or tile design—atop the natural scene using acrylic ink. Then he works back and forth, sharpening details in the scene or strengthening the pattern in a compositional push-and-pull. “I’m really focusing on the interconnection between humans and nature,” Matt explains. “The patterns, they’re kind of like our filters of how we’re interacting with nature. It’s a metaphor for the connections of humanity and nature.”
Matthew moved to Santa Fe in 2011 from Berkeley, California. He spent most of his childhood in the Bay Area, and attended Sonoma State University and the University of California, Berkeley. “When I was at UC Berkeley getting my MFA, I was around all these archives and labs and machinery,” he says. His fascination for hidden corners of the school’s research libraries inspired a series of photorealistic watercolors of stacked books, dusty typewriters and tangled scientific equipment. Now, he paints fragmented nature scenes and mandalas of the cosmos. In this Q & A, we spoke with Matthew about his transition to New Mexico, how the landscape has transformed his artwork, and his current inspiration.
When did you first start working with watercolors?
My first painting class was a watercolor class at a community college in the Bay Area. I loved it, and really connected with it right away. It was during a period where I wasn’t necessarily planning on being an artist. I was going to school to be a chiropractor, and taking a lot of science classes. The art class was really where my heart was. I took beginner’s and advanced watercolor classes, but when I went to Sonoma State I started painting with oil and acrylic. I didn’t really touch watercolor again until I got to grad school.
I started using watercolor again because […] I wanted to force myself into a really fluid medium, and practice being looser and painting the whole composition at once through layers rather than piece by piece. Once I started getting into that, it felt like that was the way to paint. I was able to get into these painting flows much better, rather than a really punctuated process of doing these little sections. With the watercolor I can just have my palette there, and the paint doesn’t really dry out the way that acrylic does. I can just be there for hours, painting and getting into this really great flow, which is why I paint.
Tell us about your progression from photorealistic watercolors to natural scenes with bold, abstract patterns.
That transition in style had a lot to do with what I was doing in my life, and where I was. The archives and more photorealist work, I was doing when I was in grad school in Berkeley. I think that kind of environment lead me to these places that are repositories for all of this information. It was all of these artifacts that kind of embody peoples’ work and knowledge, and the human body of knowledge growing.
Then when I moved to New Mexico, I was going outside all of the time, spending a lot of time in nature. I’ve always had an interest in science, and when you look at plants or stars, there’s these patterns and systems, and there’s this organization at every level—macro to micro. There’s some sort of organization and pattern. There’s also chaos, but there’s some sort of predictability or way that these things are being organized.
How did moving to New Mexico change the way you look at the world?
It was a big shock, with the amount of space. I think one of the bigger surprises was how far you could see, and how crisp everything is when you see it far away. In Berkeley when you’re looking over the water, which is pretty much the only place where you could have a far vista, everything gets really diffuse pretty quickly from all the fog in the atmosphere. All the colors get muted and turn gray. Here it’s crisp 40 miles away, a real vista. My palette got much more vivid after moving here.
Did you start painting the landscape right away?
At first, I was resistant to change. Being aware of the art history in Santa Fe and predominant styles around here, I didn’t want to paint landscapes. I wanted to avoid all of my preconceived notions of what I thought art in Santa Fe was. So I was pretty stubborn at first, like, “I’m going to paint these archives and these machines. This is what I do. I’m not going to really be influenced by what’s around me.” Then I couldn’t help being influenced by what’s around me.
My initial watercolor studies [of the New Mexico landscape] were monochromatic. I was painting monochromatically because I was really teaching myself how to paint the landscape. I had never really painted landscapes that seriously before. I was painting a lot of machinery and human-made things before. With all of the edges and the way the light works, it’s much harder to paint the landscape. The monochrome made it easier because I was only working with value and form rather than color relationships as well. Once I dialed that in a little bit better, then I started incorporating color. I love color and I want to use a lot of it, so the monochromatic stuff was just practice.
When you discuss your influences, you often reference photographers as well as painters. How does photography influence your work?
I look at a lot of photography, and there’s a lot of photographers that I really like. Andreas Gursky is a big influence, for all of the detailed information that’s in those photos. All of my paintings start from photography, but they’re my own shots. I treat it mostly as a tool to get to the painting and to be able to record nature and bring it back into the studio. It’s the first step to kick the painting off, kind of like a sketchbook.
It usually starts with light or something that just catches my eye. Then I might get my camera out, and from the camera lens I’ll start composing. I don’t really compose in my mind that much. I just go after what catches my eye and then look a little closer.
In your mandala series, The Creation of the Elements, you incorporate unconventional materials into the works, like a drop of blood or a bit of copper. Tell us about the conceptual reasoning behind that.
With the blood, it was a surprise. I wasn’t planning that until the very end. I started that painting working from the outside in. I was like, ‘How is this going to resolve?’ When I was getting close to the middle, I was thinking that stars are where all of the elements are created except for hydrogen. Everything more complicated than hydrogen is created inside of a star. I was thinking that the iron, copper and the elements in my body are actually made in stars. I wanted a human connection to that.
In your works that blend human-made patterns with natural scenes, you use watercolor and acrylic ink. What are some differences between handling those two mediums?
The acrylic ink is much riskier than the watercolor. The second it goes on, it stains and you can’t really get it off. With watercolor, you can kind of loosen it up and dab it out and lighten it. It still stains the paper a little bit, but not like acrylic ink. With the ink, every little waver of your hand is recorded. I like how it records that detail, and it makes it waterproof so when you go over it with the next layers it doesn’t smudge or soften up.
I just try to get into a flow. I don’t focus too much on making the lines perfect, I just try not to second guess myself. Once I start slowing down, I start editing too much. The paintings are really structural and I could get bogged down in all the details, but I want to not be too strict on myself and just roll with the process.
What are you working on next?
I feel like I’m just getting started [with these series]. There’s three different avenues to go down with this work. I’m just pushing the snowball down the hill, and I feel like everything I’m doing can take on a lot more. The deadline of this show, and the excitement of getting my work out of the studio has lit a fire under me.
Meet Matthew Mullins and experience his work at the 4 New Artists opening reception. RSVP on Facebook to show your support.