Categories
Visual Processes

Visual Processes: Liam Ashbrook

By Clara Rosarius| Visual Processes | Spring 2021

Birth, Decay, Rebirth

As I walked into Liam’s studio, I was in awe of the treasure-filled wonderland before me. Paintings propped against the wall, paint covered stools, childhood photographs and a table with an assortment of found animal bones, some of them complete skeletons collected in Oberlin. I sat down with Liam to chat about their artistic process, pandemic experience and their work for the upcoming Senior Studio Installation. 


Artist Statement from Liam: 

What does it mean to think and express a thought linearly? What does it mean to conceptualize yourself in a linear fashion? When trying to express who you are, at the core of your being, can you tell a straightforward story? Your creation is a compilation of many facts of your upbringing, stories you tell yourself, moments of joy and sorrow that seem crystalized in their vividness, and fuzzy forgotten days, weeks, years. It is the objects you’ve accumulated, the loved ones you’ve made and lost, places you’ve lived, dreams you once carried, it is the way you understand the world and conceptualize yourself in it. You are not a linear story, you are all these things and many more, and you are the push and pull between them—you exist in the threads that tie all these things together. 

My art practice Attempts to capture these complexities of life, taking a simple thought or Idea and stretching it to its extreme. Trying to map out a thought process, putting different thoughts in conversation with each other to make them a greater sum of their parts. On their own, the pieces are intentionally complicated and oversaturated with visual information to more authentically express a complicated inner dialogue that doesn’t always operate linearly, which allows patterns, themes and characters to easily repeat.

For my senior show I am making a map or network of interconnected paintings and found objects [in an attempt to] express myself. I am doing my best to holistically express complex ideas and narratives. I am being honest with myself and with the viewer, giving as much as I can, not paring down the story to make it simple or palatable.

Because of the density of these pieces there are some that reward careful looking—some of these layers and symbols are made explicit while others are obscured or require careful looking to uncover. There are coded messages, and a more complex narrative and image is available to the viewer who looks attentively. The works exist as conversations between the viewer and myself, where if the viewer engages in the conversation by looking carefully and bringing in their own experiences and vulnerabilities, they will have a deeper connection and conversation. Because of the plethora of information, there is room for the viewer to develop their own narrative from the image, to bring in their own life experiences that allows them to see unique connections and strings between the images.

Clara Rosarius for Wilder Voice: So to get started, could you introduce yourself? Who are you, what do you do? 

Liam Ashbrook: Sure! I’m Liam Ashbrook. I’m a fourth-year, I use they/them pronouns. I’m an art history and visual arts double major and politics minor. And I make art. I mostly work in paintings, mostly with acrylic and oil painting, but also in collage and assemblage and work with found objects and paint on found things. I guess that’s a good introduction. 

Can you speak a bit about your daily practice? 

Well, for one I try to be in here most days because if I take too much of a break I can get stuck in my own head. But my work is pretty intuitive. I generally have an idea of what I want to express, and a general vibe that I’m going for. But I usually don’t know what a piece is going to end up as until I start working and just start building. I work messily and with a lot of layers. My philosophy is if I spend enough time with it and keep adding to it, it will eventually turn into something that I like. And I think people know when you put a lot of care and effort into a thing and a lot of the time that comes through in the end. So I just try to spend as much time and get as much care into these pieces as I can until I’ve done all I can.

Do you usually work alone? Do you listen to music or podcasts?

There are times when I’m really in the zone and can’t listen to anything. Those times are sometimes really nice. But for the most part I listen to music or listen to a podcast and it just depends on the vibe that I’m going for. I like sitting in one spot and working on detail work and I listen to a podcast where I can focus on that. And if I’m thinking of ideas and, like, running around and putting new things together, trying to come up with crazy new ideas, I’ll listen to something energetic. Listening to things just helps me get in the zone. I’ll listen to one song on repeat for like an hour, just to have something going. Embarrassingly I listen to a lot of—not necessarily embarrassingly—but I listen to a lot of musicals because they’re energetic and like, yeah, let’s go! 

Do you have a notebook, or a place you start off a new piece such as a drawing, text or an overall idea before you first start on the canvas or with a found object? 

Yeah, I try to do a little journaling exercise and center myself and figure out what I’m trying to say and who I’m trying to say it to. Then I’ll do some thumbnail sketches. But there are definitely also times when I just start going and see what happens. Like with this (points to piece on wall). I didn’t really do any planning. I just was like, I need to make something. I’m just gonna go for it. So it’s like 50-50: some things I plan, some things I don’t, I just make it up as I go. 

Are there any artists that you’re influenced by or you feel like you come back to when you’re working on your own projects? 

I’ve been trying to look at contemporary artists who use mixed media and make layered, textured, and complex work, like Mark Bradford, Luis Cruz Azaceta, Robert Bittenbender, Julian Schnabel, and Gisela McDaniel. 

I’m noticing a lot of texture in your pieces as you bring in collage, so they also become sculptures in a sense. What kinds of materials do you use other than like acrylic and such? I can see you have some photographs next to the paintings, are they part of the installation? 

Yeah! These are paintings of me as a baby and these are the baby pictures that I pulled from. And I want to have those in the installation. And this is an old sign, from outside of Stevie, a menu board for Biggs that I grabbed.

All the paintings’ “canvases” that I have around here are things that I like, either old things that I’ve gotten from Goodwill and thrift shops, or from dumpster diving and things. I really like building from already used materials because I think it’s like an interesting practice of trying to not buy new things and trying to take things that other people have discarded and reuse them. And find the beauty and the artistry in them. 

It’s easier to start on something when there’s already something there to build off of. And these pieces still have the energy of the things that have come before it, and I get to build on that and have a new conversation. If I’m doing a bunch of paintings on the same canvas, I’ll use the same process each time. But if I’m doing a painting on a mirror or glass or plastic, it’s something different. I get to explore and discover something new, which is something I really like. 

I’m trying to move more into sculpture and trying to move things off of just the wall. So I am experimenting with clay and with other found objects such as bones. 

I tend to collect and hoard a bunch of things that have material importance to me. And then I try to think of when I can incorporate those into the things that I’m making.

Yeah. That’s really cool. I like the idea of kind of building on something that already exists, like adding to the history of it.

Yeah, there was a project I did last semester where I made this map of objects that people had left in my life that were gone either because we had a big fight and they left, or they died, or something. I was exploring how these different objects held not only that person, but also who I was in the moment that I knew them and how they let me transport back to that time and that different person. I think that’s true for a lot of objects and stuff. They hold different ideas and times in them. And that’s something that I like to think about and play with. 

How does your own identity, whatever that means to you, influence your work? How does that come into play in your work, if it does. 

No, I think it definitely does. My work often has an underlying theme of gender, because that’s just something that I’m thinking about often. I think that often shows up because of me being trans and always thinking about gender. And I think also about my lived gender. I don’t know if this sounds odd, but my lived experience of being trans is also very related to my spirituality and my spiritual practice, which is also important in my artmaking. Most of my pieces are to some degree self-indulgent and self-reflective, where I’m trying to just express all the thoughts that I have and put them out in pictures because I don’t know how to put them in words. Just translating things that I’ve experienced into things [I make]. 

Specifically these two pieces look vaguely like Adam and Eve to me and this specific duo is kinda supposed to be about Protestant Christianity. I grew up in a strict Protestant household. I think I still see that culture around us, like at Oberlin: it originated as a Protestant institution. I’ve just been thinking about the mythos of Adam and Eve and the idea that all people are inherently separate from the earth and should be shamed because of that separation. I’ve just been thinking about that shame and how it relates to colonization and the destruction of the land and a bunch of other things. 

An underlying thing that I’ve been thinking about recently is this shaming and the trying to bring other people into that shame and pass it along whether that’s through the Protestant work ethic or missionary things and the way that it’s spread. This is partly a practice in my own mind of trying to unlearn and break those things down. This is what I’ve been thinking about and meditating on while I make these specific pieces. I’m not entirely sure if it fully comes through, but it comes through to me. And I think that’s true in a lot of my making. It’s just processing what’s around me and trying to understand myself in the world and my place in the world by just making pictures about it. 

Do you feel like you’re still part of the Protestant community or connected to it spiritually? 

Not really. My experience growing up in the church was mostly negative. And it’s the thing that I’ve moved away from. But I think when I moved away from it, I at first shunned spirituality and religion all together. Especially this past year, having to be with myself most of the time has made me do a lot of self-reflection and I’m trying to reclaim a spirituality, a connection with the greater force that doesn’t have this baggage connected to it. I guess both personal, and also I guess political.

There was another work that you sent me from last semester’s midterm show also had religious elements inside, like inside the vulva was a religious figure. And then the halo around the three people dancing in a circle. Can you talk a little bit more about that piece? 

Yeah, definitely. That was a self-indulgent and self-reflective piece. Well the other context is that I’m also an art history major and I study mostly medieval Christian iconography and have a lot of historical knowledge about Christian iconography. It’s interesting from a geopolitical standpoint, especially in the Middle Ages, which is what I study. So that also seeps into my work and seeped into that Mother Mary and the baby Jesus there. But that piece was about spirituality and a spiritual awakening that I had. Over the summer, like after quarantining and getting tested, I got to visit my friend who was living on a commune over the summer. And we had this really wonderful experience, just hanging out in nature and being together. After being so disconnected from the world, I felt very connected to other people and to the earth, in a way that I hadn’t for a while. And we danced naked under a waterfall. And that was a painting of the three of us doing that. That was part of it. In all honesty, that painting was just me trying to capture that essence and that feeling of what it felt like, because I just didn’t want to lose that. It was really impactful and beautiful and made me feel like, oh, the world is scary and really pretty bad right now, but there is hope and beauty in things. I’ve been also trying to tap into making art from a place of joy and connection rather than rehashing the same trauma to make art out of it. 

Looking at your paintings, there is the hyper realistic mouth and hand, mixed with the simple abstracted body. That seems to be like a pattern in the work you’re doing now. 

Yeah, I was thinking about this, it was partly a technical experiment for myself. I was like, can I make something that from a distance, looks like a collage and then you get up close and you realize that it’s all painted? 

I think it’s visually jarring and interesting and also just about being able to pick and choose what parts of your life and what parts of yourself you want to make permanent and put on the gallery wall of your life. 

One thing you talked about in your artist statement was stretching an idea to the extreme. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Yeah. So for this senior studio project, there were so many directions that I wanted to go in and there were so many things that I wanted to explore. I felt like every idea that I had branched off into these different ideas and those things were interconnected in different ways. And then I was  having such a hard time, narrowing it down and trying to choose one thing. And then I was like, Why am I trying to fight this impulse for complexity? Why can’t I just embrace it? So I’m trying to just embrace it and make these things that look like my initial thoughts, like Adam and Eve but they are pushed to an extreme where it’s not entirely recognizable. They will simultaneously be like Adam and Eve and also be like other characters and other things. 

Like I said, I like working these layers. I think I’m just trying to make something that is complex enough and has these different layers of meaning so that you can sort of come into it and take away what you need and make your own connections. 

You also talked in your artist statement about wanting to create conversations between the viewer and the piece itself, or the viewer and the artist. What are you hoping those conversations will be like? 

I try to reward careful and close looking. I think especially last semester I included codes in all the paintings that I made. One of them has a bunch of poems and then there were highlighted words in the poems that you could put together to make a new poem. And one of them was a painting that closed and then had a lock and if you unlocked it, you could open it up to find another painting on the inside. I think I want to continue with that where I want people to be able to engage, like, really engage with the work. I’m putting effort and time and thought and emotion into this. And I want people to have the option to come in and get real close and think about it and uncover the codes. There will be more information if they want it. And if they don’t want it, they can also just look at it and it’s nice to look at. I want it to be a choice that if people want to engage in a deeper conversation they can. There is a choice to be able to do that.

Once you come to a piece and you’re like, I’m deciding to get up in it and look at all the close details and figure out what they mean, you’re also bringing in your own context of your life. And then that’s another layer of interest and importance. I’m thinking about connection and community. It’s trying to make a connection, express the things I want to express. And hopefully people will understand what I’m trying to say. But I also hope that people will engage with the pieces on their own terms and like the conversation. 

Do you think there are certain classes that you’ve taken at Oberlin, or just like in general outside of Oberlin, that have really influenced or impacted how you make art and your ideas around it? 

Oh, that’s such a good question. Honestly, freshman year, I took Color Theory and that class has stuck in my head. It was the first time that I worked purely with color and not with concrete shapes; it was a new experience for me and pushed me really hard. I also took Icon Painting and then TA’ed for the class, which was where you make icons in the traditional Russian iconography style and make your own paints. You’re supposed to be making spiritual religious art, which is at least partially the vibe I’m going for. I think it was intentionally a meditative process and involved a lot of layering of things. And I think that really stuck with me. Even though I don’t work with the same materials anymore, that process still stuck with me.

The artistic practice can sometimes be really isolating. Do you find that difficult or do you try to collaborate with other artists? How do you manage being alone with your thoughts all the time?

That’s something that is really hard about this year in particular and about the senior year and COVID-19. In previous years, and in the junior studio last year, we would go and check out what each other were working on and stay in the studio late at night together or go out for drinks or whatever and become an artist community. And we’re not really able to do that this semester. I’m lucky that my roommate is also an artist and we can bounce ideas off of each other and work together in the same space. It is sometimes difficult, especially when I’m really excited about an idea or unsure about an idea. So that’s another thing I hope for in the future, to be able to collaborate more. 

Collaboration requires vulnerability because here I can show you what I’ve made and talk about it, but to collaborate, someone will sit in on your creation process, which for me is even more personal than the pieces. So that’s something that I’m slowly but surely getting better at: being vulnerable, vulnerable about throwing out ideas and making mistakes with another person also there. 

I am also thinking about the art world and wondering how you feel artists fit into society in general. Navigating the art world is so difficult. 

That’s also a very good question. I don’t know. I’ve been talking to some different artists. I got to sit down with a former Obie, who’s a curator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) on Monday and have a brief conversation. And that was really illuminating where she told me her experiences. Her advice was just like find artists that you really admire and ask if they need studio assistants, and just put yourself out there and DM people and also name-drop other artists that you know because it’s a weird community.

The other thing that I keep learning and re-learning is that there isn’t one path to being an artist. There are lots of ways that you can be an artist. You can sell your stuff as stickers and things online. And you can work academically and become a teacher or professor. You can become a curator or you can just make art in your free time and put it up in the world without anyone’s permission and just be a person. I don’t know if that’s entirely helpful. The truth is that I’m still discovering what the art world looks like, especially for me and how I can, and hopefully will, fit into it.

Are there directions you hope to go in the future with your work or try different mediums or something experimental, something you haven’t worked with before?

Definitely. I want to play with bringing stuff off of the gallery wall, [causing] this conflict between the rectangular frame on a white wall and bringing stuff out of that. Part of the way I want to do that is by trying to work sculpturally, which I’m kind of scared of because I don’t have a lot of practice. Putting objects together in a not-wall space is something I want to try. I also just want to try to go bigger and see how big I can go, how crazy I can get. Those are the things that I’m thinking about, future things I want to explore, at least for the rest of the semester. 

What are your plans for after you graduate, where you want to go or… 

That’s also a good question right now. Well, actually, just today I sent out an application. Not this past Winter Term, but the Winter Term before I stayed at a commune in West Virginia. And I’m applying to live there for three to six months, to keep working on my portfolio and to establish more of an online presence and to live out the rest of the pandemic. And figure out what I’m going to do next. The art world is big and scary, but it’s something that I at least want to try to give it a shot at, because tha’’s something that I really love doing and I will probably continue to do for the rest of my life whether or not I get paid for it. So it would be nice to get paid for it. 

Is there advice you’d give to artists or aspiring artists when they’re first starting out? 

I know this is incredibly cliché, but honestly, just make work. The only way that I got better is that I just spent a lot of time making stuff. I would also say just take risks both in what you’re making and also in showing it to people. I think way more people are artists and have the ability to make art than they realize. I’ve had friends who’ve been like “no, I’m not an artist.” And they show me their collages and they’re gorgeous. And I’m like, you just have to have the confidence to call yourself an artist and show people or post it online. If you take yourself seriously as an artist, other people will take you seriously as an artist. So I think just taking yourself seriously and just making stuff and taking risks, allowing yourself to try something new. These were all kinds of experiments that I just liked. And so I put it up on the wall and I said, this is art now. And people just agreed with me.  

Check out Liam’s work on Instagram @lem.arts

Categories
Visual Processes

Visual Processes: Olivia Berke, Stella Mulroney, and Zoe Iatridis

interviewed by Mary Brody | Visual Processes | Fall 2020

Image by Zoe Iatridis

Four housemates reflect on their art-filled home.


When studio art majors decide to have a casual dinner party, what they are really doing is constructing a performance. Classic table settings have been jetissoned and in their place are hand-made clay figurines. Absolutely no utensils can be found, and meticulously picked out rocks from Chance Creek stand in for plates. The candle wax is to be poured and manipulated while eating, and please, consider saving the bones from your meat for some artistic repurposing. I, as an English major, am privy to this knowledge as the housemate of three senior studio art majors. I’ve been best friends with my two housemates Olivia and Stella since freshman year and have just gotten to know Zoe, our third housemate, this semester. I’ve watched them all grow and struggle as artists during this strange school year, but mostly I have been paying attention to how their artistry has taken up space in our off-campus house. I sat down with my roommates to chat about who they are as artists and to reconcile the ways in which their processes have taken on our home as their vessel during our fall semester.

OLIVIA BERKE 

Mary Brody: So, I think I know you’re going to hate this first question but, what would you say your artist statement is at the moment if you have one?

Olivia Berke: No, no, I will answer questions if that is what you want. It’s not going to be perfect though? 

MB: Yes, of course. 

OB: Right now I’m interested in the balance of or the exact moment that an object can no longer stand on its own—and also when it can. I’ve been trying to find and explore those moments through trying to create something that exists only in these very specific times and spaces. I’m also just very interested in the idea of collapse when things are placed in such precarious positions, so it’s a lot of accumulation and balancing and stacking for me right now. 

Beyond that, I think just as an artist, a general through line in my work would be making things that are kind of two things and nothing at once—basically I’m just always very interested in hybridity. I frequently use found materials and recognizable objects and then, either in a repetitive way or in some small altercation I force, try to change how you think about them.

When we arrived at our house in early August, Olivia immediately started building a wire sculpture in the backyard. It was four tall ladders made of and connected by thin wire, and no one could understand how it balanced like it did. Olivia spent weeks in the field across from our house standing on one foot, then the other, trying to understand the thing she created. 

As the COVID-19 school year approached, it seemed like the precariously positioned sculpture in our backyard might be one of the only constants in our lives. The wire sculpture withstood high winds and heavy rains. Our landlord would recklessly mow the lawn all around the sculpture, getting extremely close but never disturbing it. Then one day, a friend came over and tapped the side of one of the ladders lightly, causing it to immediately crumble over. Olivia said this was a sign, but I’m not fully sure what she meant by that. 

MB: I love the balancing stuff you’ve been working on and I also think it’s, yes, definitely a relatively new focus for you. 

OB: Definitely, and also organized chaos. Oh! One thing I think I should mention that is just very core to everything is thinking about ways of using, or really maybe forcing, materials and discovering these relationships where you’re pushing it to do something and it’s pushing back at you to do something else. I’m also always listening and trying to work with and against the materials I use.

MB: I think that kind of give and take and communication is really visible in your work and just connects nicely to your concerns with hybridity and balance. I thought of how I’ve definitely noticed in my witnessing of your artistic evolution over the years that rummaging and scavenging have become pretty huge for your practice. Could you talk about that process and what you’re looking for?

OB: Yes, I’ve always been interested in objects that would be considered not noticeable or are typically overlooked like, you know, trash or just discarded extra material. Let’s say that something falls off of a bike—then there is not only the story that that instance holds but the whole history of the object and I just see a lot of beauty in that. And, you know, I think other people see that beauty too. It’s just I’m talking about objects that we are typically conditioned not to look at. 

In my work it’s about finding these objects that have feelings and emotions, taking them out of their context, off the side of the street, and then using them as a jumping-off point. Usually if I find something I can say, “Okay, well this object needs this to make it something that tells a story or expresses something important.” But also it’s not that the work starts around an object. 

Sometimes I will be working on something and I’ll be struggling to finish it, and I can’t figure out what it needs and then I’ll walk down the street and see the perfect thing to complete it! You know? That’s it! And you take it to the studio, it’s some tree branch or something, and then you paint it and that is it! And now that we have a house I can just retrieve and collect so many massive things I couldn’t before.

The first floor of our house has served largely as a collection ground for Olivia’s strange found materials. I wake up one morning and go into the foyer, and there are scraps of roofing and tiles and other remnants of a house that was demolished nearby. (When Olivia finds out there is a house being demolished nearby she is like a kid on Christmas.) These scraps already somehow look like both art and garbage to me, but Olivia describes the whole new life she plans to bring to them once she gets them into the studio. Often, as soon as the materials arrive in the living room or foyer, they are taken away to be worked on, leaving the house feeling empty until Olivia goes rummaging again and refills the space. The garbage really makes our house feel like a home.

MB: So, shifting to the now: How has quarantine and the strange state of the world been impeding or accelerating your process? 

OB: It’s been hard. It feels like nothing is important but everything is important at this time. I’ve done a lot of thinking about what making art means right now and how my practice fits into that. What I’m thinking about right now is that the opportunity for community building is so at the center of art, but it’s so often that that is not the case. There were definitely times over quarantine when I was too sad or angry to work, but now, having the space to do it, creating and thinking about it as a means for connection, is really what keeps me going. And to connect this back to what I was saying about my interest in balance, I think that it is informed largely by the kind of emotional pendulum we’ve been living in, and looking for that stability, maybe just for my own sanity. 

MB: In terms of Senior Studio, do you have any mission or specific approach for this year?

OB: If I’m being perfectly honest, what I want out of Senior Studio is just to feel confident enough that I can do this as a career. The stakes are lower than in the real world so I want to really be pushed and told when something is bad and why. This is the only thing that I want to do so it needs to be what I do, but it sucks because it’s such a hard thing to do or make money off of. So yes, I’d just like confidence. But I also am enjoying building an understanding of a studio practice and how to self-motivate to be constantly creating and be more introspective. 

“I’m interested in the balance of or the exact moment that an object can no longer stand on its own—and also when it can”

Olivia Berke

MB: Can you speak about the pieces you have in the senior halftime show?

OB: Yes! My first piece is called Point/Counterpoint and it was the only piece that I had made weeks ago. Everything else was made specifically for this show. That piece had actually started as a floor piece, but we moved it to the wall for the show which was exciting. I’ll admit I was against the wall at first, I guess. Or I didn’t want the wall to feel like too much support for the piece, but I really think it held its own. 

Then I had Plank and Hoop, which was really about the themes I was talking about earlier—gravity, balance, and things pushing back or supporting things. The plank in that piece was really just such a great chunk of found wood. I also liked that it was next to my drawing, An Impossible Stability, to contextualize it a bit. That drawing came together sort of last-minute, but I do think it tied the pieces together nicely. 

My last piece, Forced Attraction, was truly a puzzle to put together. The tubing I used to make the structure just did not want to mold, but I think that helped with communicating what I wanted to about an uncomfortable or awkward connection and instability. I was happy with it as my only freestanding piece in the show.

MB: What is your hope for postgrad?

OB: Oh my God, just write down, “Shrieks.” But really, all I could hope for in the future is being able to create and work toward making art more accessible. It’s just such a valuable tool and if you don’t like it that’s fine, but at least you know how to make something with your hands, you know? 

I think it’s an interesting time and a real moment of reconciliation for the art community about the future of art and all of the current issues embedded in the art world as we know it. Beyond that, who knows? Maybe one day I’ll get a studio and hopefully, way down the line, I could make some money off  of my work. I don’t know, I want to be an artist! 

STELLA MULRONEY

MB: If you have one, what would you say your artist statement is? 

Stella Mulroney: I’d say it’s more of a vibe than a statement. 

MB: Sure, an artist vibe. 

SM: Well, I think a lot about dreams, you know, the dreamscape. I have really intense dreams where I am frequently visited by entities that are honestly beyond my comprehension. I also find that I have a lot of dreams where I’m experiencing a very real feeling of pain, like, I frequently have violent car-crash dreams that are almost sensory or somatic. So I’ve been focusing a lot on trying to make the things that are in my dreams represented in reality and representing bodily pain that I maybe haven’t actually felt physically—while lucid—but that I feel in my brain while sleeping. 

On a separate note, I also use a lot of writing in my work. Writing won’t necessarily appear in the final piece, but I do a lot of writing, trying to articulate what I am making as I make it. To get it out of my brain I need to write it out first, I guess. Sometimes I feature recordings or videos of spoken word in installations, too. Songs I write too, sometimes.  

On any given day in our house you can hear Stella singing a tune and strumming her guitar in her room. Her soft voice fills the taut silence of a home full of artists who quietly sculpt or paint, and in my case write. My room in the house is directly under Stella’s. Most nights, I hear her take breaks from working on her pieces for Senior Studio to sing a little song. I never fully recognize any of them, they aren’t popular or well-known, but they feel safe and familiar because they are something Stella crafted.  

Stella Mulroney, Osmosis

MB: Similarly to Olivia, when I first met you, I would have probably only described you as a photographer, but in your time at Oberlin it’s been nice to see you experiment with sculpture and, like you mentioned, video. Could you talk about that evolution? 

SM: I don’t think I came to college knowing I would definitely be an art major, but I loved photography in high school. When I got to Oberlin I just decided to take a photography class because I figured I’d be good at it, and I ended up loving it so much and falling in love with the whole department. 

I truly never thought I would sculpt in all my days, but then I took a sculpture class with Nannette Yannuzzi and it changed the way I looked at what I could do. Like, everything opened up. I got very excited about different dimensions and movement in art. I also don’t really think I necessarily want to primarily be a visual artist in life, but I have loved it here and it informs everything else I do. But I will never draw in my whole life. 

MB: The strength of your emotions around drawing brings me to my next question: a lot of the work you’ve made here is very powerful in how personal it feels, could you talk about that level of intimacy and how much of “you” is in your work? 

SM: A lot of artists, in a way I really respect, are in their work but in a very removed way; the work is still their heart but it’s not easy to identify the artist in the art. I bring a lot of personal narrative into my work. I find using personal issues in my work really cathartic and also I am a chronic oversharer so it works for me to a certain degree. I just have never seen the reason to not be candid about more personal or difficult things, so I find it easy to bring up that level of transparency in my work. Also, for myself as a viewer, I really enjoy when I see that candidness in other work because I feel such a deep connection to that. 

MB: How has working in these unprecedented times been? How has it affected your approach to your last year?

SM: There is a good amount of un-motivation. I feel, as we all do, pretty emotionally drained already, and creating art is kind of an emotionally draining activity. I’m glad to have deadlines again to get me into creative motivation. But I feel disconnected from the studio, too; I do most of my work from home because there is more space…  

Stella does have a lot of space in our house, and when she is not filling it with art, she is amassing a large army of reptiles upstairs. Close to 30 animals live in Stella’s room/studio with her: one leopard gecko, one lizard, two frogs, a few snails, and 20-some-odd exotic fish. These animals likely have a better idea of Stella’s artistic process than anyone else. Some days, Stella will move a piece she’s working on about her dream entities out of her room and into the living room. And most days, a new box of crickets or tank-cleaning snails arrives on our doorstep. Stella’s space is in constant flux—living creatures coming in and creatures of artistic imagination being pumped out.

SM: … I also have never been into a very regimented studio practice. It’s weird—I don’t want to make art about the unprecedented times, but it also feels weird to present art about my dreams. I guess it’s a nice escape but there is some pressure to respond to this moment through art, and then maybe my art could be an escape for the viewer, too. 

MB: Can you speak a little bit about the piece you have in the senior halftime show?

SM: Yes! I did a video installation titled Osmosis. I was thinking about subconscious entities or things that can weigh down on your physical form, and trying to balance fighting that off and letting it happen. It was a pretty personal and reflective piece. 

I was thinking a lot about my past life and the idea that for a lot of people, in order to grow, there has to be some kind of shedding of the past or getting rid of older parts of you that may no longer be useful, even if that’s painful. Along with that, the audio is a song I wrote in high school and the bass recording is from high school, but I sang over it again now just to think about peeling away and piling on. 

“I just have never seen the reason to not be candid about more personal or difficult things, so I find it easy to bring up that level of transparency in my work.”

Stella Mulroney

MB: What would you say you envision your future as an artist looking like?  

SM: This is maybe funny for this interview, but for me personally, I think being a studio art major in college has made me realize that I don’t want to be a visual artist in life. I’ve loved studying here, but I think it’s great that I learned that it maybe can’t be the main thing I’m doing. I’ll certainly be working in a creative field and everything I learned as an art major here will impact anything I do, so I am very glad I got to explore myself here. 

ZOE IATRIDIS 

MB: What would you say your working artist statement is at the moment? 

Zoe Iatridis: I mostly paint portraits, mostly self-portraits. I’ve always found it pretty difficult to say what they’re about because I generally don’t know when I start. I feel like the work kind of emerges from some intuitive place in me, and only after does it make sense, sometimes many months later. 

I would say, though, that I’m concerned with trying to capture some truth about the way that I experience the world and the things that have impacted me in my life, kind of knowing that that is futile. No matter how good my work is or how evocative a painting is, nothing will truly allow me to instill in someone what I’m feeling or thinking. We’re all always feeling some impossible combinations of emotions all the time, and it’s very difficult to make sense of ourselves and impossible to communicate to others in a totally true way. So that is kind of what my art is concerned with broadly. 

More specifically, I’ve been thinking a lot about home and family and one’s place, or the relationships we use to root ourselves and find some sense of selfhood through. I’m always pretty focused on ephemerality, too.

MB: I only know you as a painter, and you’ve mentioned to me that painting has always been your medium. Can you talk about discovering that? 

ZI: I was always a creative and quirky kid, but I never really had an outlet for it, and would just draw on my own time, so I never considered myself an artist. I started painting during my first year of high school and just kind of never stopped. It wasn’t really a decision, either—I didn’t think about it, I just began to paint. I’ve experimented with other mediums, photography in particular, but none have felt as authentic to me. 

MB: And have portraits always been an area of interest? 

ZI: I’ve been drawing portraits my whole life. I have notebooks saved from kindergarten of learning to draw the components of a face; I was obsessed, I filled whole pages with just noses and just eyes. So it’s just been forever. My dad will sometimes say I need to find something else to paint, but I can’t! There’s nothing else for me. Only recently, I would say in junior studio last fall, is when I started really explicitly making self-portraits. Prior to that, I would paint a lot of people that looked a lot like me but weren’t meant to exactly “be” me. I love the exercise of repetition in repainting the same face, my face, over and over in this kind of compulsive way, and I think that that connects back to my concerns of trying to communicate and be known. It’s kind of like looking at yourself and trying to understand and repeat it while also allowing yourself to be vulnerable and portray whatever version of yourself needs to exist in that moment. 

One day, while moving furniture into the attic, I discovered Zoe’s collection of self-portraits. What seemed like over 20 large rolled canvases were spread out around the floor. Out of curiosity, I began to unroll them, not understanding who they were or who could have made them, but recognizing some feeling of familiarity in the eyes of each portrait’s face. I moved them near the window, allowing the light to wash over them, and I finally saw Zoe. It felt kind of like I was looking at something I shouldn’t be, that maybe I was invading the privacy of my new roommate just by happening upon these canvases. Now, I think that that intense vulnerability is just inherent in Zoe’s practice of portraiture, and the way I felt in the attic was a possible moment of artistic success for my new friend.  

MB: What has your evolution as a painter been like at Oberlin?

ZI: I came to college knowing I loved art and knowing I wanted to be an art major, but I had no idea what I cared about—I just felt like I had to do it. I actually didn’t take a painting class here until the spring of my sophomore year. I think most of my first two years were about exploring other mediums and techniques, which I think did end up making me a better painter. I was so focused on learning something new in those two years though, rather than learning a specific concept, so I just kind of felt like someone who was taking art classes but couldn’t fully connect. Then, when I got into that painting class, I started to feel the shift to actually feeling like an artist.

MB: What is painting and finishing up your college career under these circumstances like? 

ZI: I think it’s really affected my work. I’m still broadly concerned with the same thing, but I’ve gone down a narrow path of focusing on loss. I think this time has forced everyone to confront the fact that every important thing and relationship in your life is fleeting. In my work, I’ve been trying to reconcile the sadness of that fact with the happiness of having those things when you do. In quarantine I was feeling so stuck, but now I think that I was just digesting everything and I’m ready to make art about it. 

MB: Something very cool about you is that you are actually a double major with art history and you have a curatorial job at the Allen Memorial Art Museum. Could you speak about how studying art history has impacted your process?

ZI: It never occurred to me that I might want to be an art history major as well, and then I fell in love with the department. I think studying art history has informed my work in really interesting ways, and making work has informed the ways I think about art history. I really do think all artists should have some knowledge of art history; it just seems silly that you wouldn’t know the context of what you’re creating. 

Also, yes, my curatorial job at the Allen—I’ve been doing a lot of research on paintings that we have acquired from like 1900 to 1980, and it’s my job to go through the curatorial file and go through all the auction records and places that the pieces have been before. It’s really interesting to be intimate with a piece of art in that way and track its history, so I’m enjoying it. I think just being with art in many different ways as an artist can be really important. 

“I’ve been drawing portraits my whole life. I have notebooks saved from kindergarten of learning to draw the components of a face; I was obsessed, I filled whole pages with just noses and just eyes.”

Zoe Iatridis

MB: Can you speak a little bit about the pieces you have in the senior halftime show?

ZI: I am showing a portrait of me as a child—painted from a photograph my grandmother gave me—a painting of me and my mother on the couch, and a large painting of me lying on a lily pad, like a frog. 

The image of me and my mother on the couch has been something I wanted to paint for a while. I’ve been thinking about the craving of my mom’s comfort and the limitations of that as I get older. It was hard to paint sometimes because I love my mom so much and I really wanted to do it justice. It was definitely tricky and it was my first time working with mixed media, with the textures, which was actually sort of an accident. 

The portrait of me as a child is just special because it’s a moment I now know was one that I spent with my grandmother. It sort of feels like something kind of separate from the timeline of my life, so it’s a nice connection to my grandmother, whom I love so much, even though it’s not part of my memory with her. 

The lily pad painting just came from my strange dreams about frogs over the past few months. I don’t really believe that dreams are symbolic, but I truly dream about frogs in a way that is serious and… sad? Maybe melancholy? This sounds crazy. I don’t know, it’s just become a thing that serves as a marker for where I’m at in my life right now. I think maybe just seeing my paintings in the show, without an artist statement or anything, they may not seem like they’re in conversation. 

Of course, to me they are related or in conversation, and I’m excited about it because it’s like three divergent paths off of the same theme. I also think I want to continue to work on them next semester, and then one day maybe they’ll make more sense to the viewer in conversation.

MB: What is a hope for postgrad? 

ZI: I don’t know. All I know is I have to be making art and prioritizing that in my life because it makes me so happy. But I don’t really know. I want a life where I can make work, and hopefully show it to some people, and hopefully some of those people like it. There are so many uncertainties in the coming years but I know art has to be at the center of my life, so that is really just the driving force for me.

The halftime show opened on November 13th. When I spoke to Zoe on the Saturday after the show about how she thought it went, we were less than a week away from Thanksgiving break, and Zoe would be the first of all of us to leave the house and head home for over a month. That Saturday night, we all sat in our living room, which was filled with Stella’s sculptures and Olivia’s masks and a painting that Zoe had made of the outside of our house the very first week we moved in. It was sad to think about the art, which really felt like its own life force in our house, being left alone in the dead of an Ohio winter. After a wave of silence, Zoe looked up at all of us and said, “You know, it’s really dawning on me, how much I’ll miss you guys and the house and my tea on the porch in the mornings and the backyard at night and just, you know, our space.” 

Categories
Institutional Memory

In Conversation With Walter Gordon ’14

by The Editors | Institutional Memory | Web Exclusive

187 North Professor Street, where Wilder Voice’s offices were located during Walter Gordon’s tenure as Editor-in-Chief.

A former Editor-in-Chief chats about favorite mistakes, the editing process, and Lena Dunham’s Girls.


What years did you attend Oberlin and what was your major?

I graduated in 2014 and I majored in English. I almost had a minor but didn’t have a minor. 

What in?

Art history. I think I had enough credits for an art history minor but I didn’t get the paperwork in or something. 

What are you doing now?

I’m finishing up a PhD at Columbia University. I work on African-American literature and energy […] literal energy, like coal, the environment, electricity, things like that, and how they show up in Black writing from the 20th century. 

What years were you a part of Wilder Voice and what positions did you hold there? 

I was just there my last two years. First I was Assistant Editor, then I went straight to EIC. I don’t know how typical that is; it felt fairly typical in a certain way because there weren’t that many options. I was kind of the most senior person on staff even though I had only been there for a year.

How did you get started with WV?

I cannot recall. At that point in my undergraduate life I had done at least one publishing internship at a literary magazine in San Francisco during one of the summers.

Which magazine?

It’s called Zyzzyva. They had me reading the slush pile and writing book reviews. And so by the time I got to my junior year I knew I wanted to do something literary, not directly publishing-related, [and at Oberlin] there were kind of two options, if I recall: there was Wilder Voice and Plum Creek Review, I don’t know if that’s still around.

Yeah, it is. 

Yeah, and they were very different from each other, they have very different processes. And I believe I worked for Plum Creek briefly because it was kind of open, you could just go to a meeting and they would be like, “Alright, you can vote on what gets put in the magazine,” and I did that for maybe a semester before Wilder Voice. And then I jumped ship and went to WV for some reason that I can’t remember, unfortunately.

Did you ever do anything with the Grape or the Review?

I never did anything with the Grape or the Review, I never have been interested in traditional journalism. Which was one thing that was interesting working at Wilder Voice, and maybe this is still the case: when I got there, I was like, “I don’t care about all of the investigative journalism, nor can we do really good investigative journalism with the time and resources we had as undergraduates in this small town—what we can do is more creative work.” So maybe there was a slight shift towards creative stuff when I was there, which I’m curious to see if that’s had an afterlife or if it’s kind of returned to being more nonfiction-oriented. 

“I tried to steer it towards something a little more, I don’t know, a little more Paris Review than Harper’s.”

Right now it’s a lot of personal essays. Some reporting, but not a ton.

Yeah, I think that’s a shift that’s happened over the last 15 years.

When you say “creative pieces,” do you mean fiction and poetry?

Yeah, that was definitely in it, but more leaning towards the kinds of essays you guys are talking about. Less things that are tightly structured investigate pieces and more things that lean para-academic, not quite academic discourse but certainly kind of intellectually engaged, more in that kind of way. 

Do you feel like you played a part in that shift via the decisions you made as EIC?

I think so. I mean, I felt generally like there were only certain things I could make decisions about, and one of the things I couldn’t make decisions about, on a certain level, was content. Because the amount of submissions we got was usually such that we printed, like, two-thirds  of what got submitted, or half, maybe. So there wasn’t really that much that I could do in terms of “I want this type of writing,” you know? ’Cause it was sort of like we were dealing with the body of writers we had available to us, which was one of the problems that Wilder Voice faced while I was there, just expanding that pool of writers to include more people, specifically people of color. But yeah, I tried to steer it towards something a little more, I don’t know, a little more Paris Review than Harper’s

In hindsight, what role do you think Wilder Voice played in your career at Oberlin? 

It was a big deal. It took a lot of my time. I don’t know if this is still the case for you guys, but it was immensely time-consuming. It took—I was just talking to my partner about this—it took just a little less time commitment than all of my other classes put together. And a lot of that was doing the kind of shit that I never do anymore and that at a normal magazine I don’t think an Editor-in-Chief would do, like arranging things on a page, making sure that the magazine looks right and has good margins and all that crap. That took an insane amount of time. And then there was something, I can’t remember the specific structure of it, but we had some kind of thing where there was a two-week period where it was a crazy crunch and everybody had to finish their articles and we had a name for it, and it was like, “You gotta finish your articles and get them from this early stage to basically being done within these weird two weeks in, like, November or something.” That period was insanely stressful. 

In terms of less quotidian ways in which it affected my life, it did push me towards continuing to work in literary magazines, something to do with literary journalism publishing, which I did do for a year after I finished college. I moved to New York, like a good literary Oberlin grad, and I worked at New Directions and New York Review of Books. And I got into grad school at that time, so very quickly kind of abandoned ship, but I was on a clear trajectory towards doing publishing stuff. And that was directly because of working at Wilder Voice and enjoying that work.

Do you have a favorite Wilder Voice memory?

I have quite a few. I have one that I really wanted to ask you about, because I have an indelible memory of this and I wonder if it had any kind of long-lasting effect, which is that—I wouldn’t say this is a favorite memory because it was the source of much stress and shame—but [to print Wilder Voice] we had to go through this crazy process through the school. Like, it was a school contractor who had a contract through Wilder Voice, I don’t know how the people who set up Wilder Voice originally did it but they’re wizards. But anyway, I wrote them a check to print however many magazines and it was some outrageous amount of money, like $9,000 to print the magazine, and I gave them the check and we got charged and the magazines came, and there were half as many magazines as there was supposed to be. And I looked at the charge and they had charged me $4,000-and-something dollars because I have really bad handwriting, and they thought my nine was a four. So we printed half as many magazines as usual, and that ended up being a really good thing because—I don’t know if this is still the case for you guys—but generally there’d be literally a thousand extra magazines that’d be sitting around, and there’d be these boxes and boxes of magazines just sitting around, so that’s a really good memory in a weird way because it was a complete accident that should have been a disaster that was completely fine. 

Do you have a terrible WV memory?

Yeah, I do have a terrible memory. I at one point—maybe it was my first or second semester at the magazine—I  publicly talked shit about a writer. Like, about their piece, among my friends on a porch or something. And I got caught, basically; it got to the writer somehow that I’d been talking shit about them and then they went to Elizabeth [Kuhr], and was like, “Walter is a shithead.” And I had to apologize to the whole staff and apologize to that person profusely and it was really shitty,  but it also… it was an interesting position to be in, to be the head of the magazine and to make the mistake that one is not supposed to make; that was an interesting experience for me. 

What’s your favorite article that you published at WV?

That’s a tough question. There was a really good one on a porn star, like on a relationship that a student had to a porn star in the virtual world, and the kind of place that this porn star held in their sexual idenitity. There was a really good one about selfies that I feel like came out at a good time when the world wasn’t yet inundated by writing about selfies. I don’t think selfies are undertheorized at this point; when this kid wrote about selfies it was still fairly fresh. That one was cool. I also had a couple of friends who interviewed a bounty hunter. Apparently it’s not a very good piece in retrospect, but I recall having a lot of fun putting it together and getting them to interview this bounty hunter and stuff, that was cool. Those are the ones that I recall the clearest. I really like—when I took over we switched the format of the visual art section. Previously there was some art and then maybe some writing from the artists about their art, and then when I did it, I had our Art Editor interview artists instead, and that felt pretty good, I remember quite liking what came out of those. Those are all highlights. 

It was an interesting position to be in, to be the head of the magazine and to make the mistake that one is not supposed to make.

Did WV have any type of “reputation” on campus? 

Honestly, not really. I feel like it was very under-the-radar, like people knew Plum Creek way better than WV and what WV was, because I think it was very ambiguous to people, partially because of the way in which it was about news but also literary. [That] was very confusing to people, and the whole super-long editorial process that we did kind of created a bubble around WV. The people who were involved with it knew what it was but I think very few others did. I would guess it had a reputation of being kind of pretentious or something, which is not a word I use very often or one that I think is very helpful, but I would imagine that’s how some people understood it, to an extent. Maybe a little less artsy than PC but still somehow intellectually prepossessing and intimidating is how I would put it. Certainly took itself more seriously than the Grape.  

What do you think is the most essential part of Wilder Voice that makes it Wilder Voice?

I mean, definitely partially it was the editorial process. As much as I hated it and bucked against it, and found it counterintuitive and frustrating, it definitely was unique and did produce a certain environment for writers that I think is kind of rare. Like now what I teach is basically a freshman seminar but without a theme, it’s just how to write for college. And the basic point of that class is it’s the only time they’ll ever get to run, like, six drafts by a professional writer and get responses constantly, and Wilder Voice did something kind of similar, even though it wasn’t professional or whatever: somebody who’s supposedly pretty good at editing, and had people above them who were even better supposedly, and so it was a unique situation, the kind of setup for helping to cultivate writing skills. So that definitely was vital. 

And then another thing was the variety of forms—which again, as much as I griped about the ambiguity of the investigative journalism shtick, it was cool that we had reporting and creative nonfiction and poetry and art and  totally weird kinds of creative writing that were something else entirely. I really felt like we could put anything in it which was cool, which I really took advantage of my second semester. 

I published a really weird thing that I wrote half of, because I was just like, “I’m in charge, I can do whatever the fuck I want,” so we did this thing that was called—I don’t have acces to any of these old magazines so I can’t look back at this so I can’t remember what it was called exactly—but it was something in Latin and it folded out and it was a bunch of word definitions or etymologies of words, some of which were completely fictional and some of which were real. And I thought that was very cool, that I could put this in that [issue] was like, what is that even? So that to me is a basic tenet of Wilder Voice: it’s kind of formless and can kind of take on whatever kind of thing can be literally put in the pages. Or even now that you’re digital, you don’t even have to deal with fitting in pages. Which is probably something to think about. How can you take advantage of the situation that you’re in, you know? 

We’d love to hear about your view on the editorial process at Wilder Voice, specifically what frustrated you about it and how you went about trying to change it or refine it.

I don’t think I did change it very much. It was one of the things that I was like, “This is too much of a fucking, like, iceberg.” I only had a year to make changes, but if I remember it was just difficult that there was often tension between writers and editors, because the writer would have an idea for what they wanted to do and then the editor [would have] conversations with everyone else on staff who were very opinionated… and the writer was not privy to those conversations, right, and so we’d come back with all this stuff and the writer would be like “Where is all this coming from? Why are you not responding to me?” So that was a major problem, there was a major emphasis on collaboration between editors which was perhaps detrimental in the way that it was kind of done without transparency. That was frustrating to me. A lot of writers just found it incomprehensible why they were being asked to produce something new. A lot of people wanted to come to Wilder Voice and be like, “Yeah I wrote this cool essay, can I publish it?” And we’d be like, “No, actually you have to start a new thing.” Why go through the editorial process itself when you have this finished thing that will just go through months of editing? So those were the kind of issues I had with it. Like I said, I think there were a lot of good things about it, that it did in certain circumstances really foster a relationship between an editor and a writer that really helped the writer to develop, but that was not the most common experience.

Do you think you would have done anything differently as EIC in hindsight?

I probably would have placed more of my energy into widening the audience and the pool of writers that WV reached. There was a really kind of depressing thing that happened where about halfway through the year a poster went up for another literary magazine that was Black-run, like everyone on staff was Black, and they were trying to get mostly Black writers or something like that, and on the poster it said they were the only magazine in Oberlin run by a POC, and I’m a POC, and so it was this real moment for me where I was like, “Damn, you know, it’s a surprise to me that I’m not always visible as such to people.” That is something I’ve come to terms with over the course of my life, obviously, but the fact was that that should have been acknowledged, that should have been passed out to people outside of the small realm in which I lived. So that was super disappointing for me. And my response to that was partially—I mean, we did a little more outreach but not much, like we didn’t really know how to do more outreach, but what we did do is I think the poetry section was all Black writers or all writers of color, maybe, for a semester or maybe two semesters. But that to me is a kind of band-aid. It’s just kind of amplifying voices, but what you really need to be doing is kind of cultivating more and creating more connections where they’re totally missing. So that probably would have been more of an emphasis—but it’s hard to do that. Again, this is why institutional memory’s important. Like, there was no evidence that that had been a project that anyone before me had taken in any kind of similar way. There was no kind of precedent for how I might go about doing that, so it’s good to talk to people and see what has been tried in the past and fix problems that are still problems. 

Is there anything we should’ve asked but didn’t? 

Not really. But I have one question, actually. One very small change I made was that the magazine looked almost exactly the same. Specifically the cover was always this evocative image and then like a bar and then Wilder Voice in full volume, and I think my first semester we were really struggling to come up with a cover and I was like, “What if we just put a circle and then a ‘WV’ inside of the circle?” and that’s what we ended up doing, and it looked really cool, so I was just wondering if the cover’s reverted to being the same every time, or if it’s looser now. I know that it changed shape, which is very exciting. Like in the two years after I left it shrunk significantly which I think is smart.

The little “WV” circle is still around.

Current (left) and former (right) “WV” circles.

I feel like that’s another thing about WV: our designers were fucking sick… I was always happy with how the magazine read. To be frank with you I was not thrilled with all of the pieces but I always liked how it looked. It looked very professional. Have you spoken to a lot of editors?

We did a big group interview with the ones who, like, took it over from Lena Dunham.

Right, right. Have you gotten Lena Dunham?

Her publicist didn’t get back to us. And it would ultimately be harmful to us.

Is she widely reviled on campus at this point? 

Yeah, we think.

That’s super interesting because when I was there it was, like, the birth of Lena Dunham. I was there from 2010–2014, and Girls must have come out in 2013, so it was like, “Woah, Lena Dunham got famous.” So there was very much a more complicated—like, everyone hated her but ultimately was just mega jealous. Half the people in the Creative Writing Department were like, “She took my shit!”

Walter Gordon graduated from Oberlin in 2014 with a degree in English. He is currently a graduate student at Columbia University.

Photo by Sam Schuman.

Categories
Institutional Memory

In Conversation With Elizabeth Kuhr ’14

by The Editors | Institutional Memory | Web Exclusive

The Fall 2013, Spring 2013, and Spring 2014 issues of Wilder Voice, published while Elizabeth Kuhr was the magazine’s Managing Editor.

Wilder Voice’s former Managing Editor, now a journalist in London, talks favorite memories at the magazine and what makes Oberlin a special place for young journalists.


This discussion is part of a new interview series, “Institutional Memory.”

—The Editors


When did you graduate Oberlin?

I graduated Oberlin in 2014.

What did you major in?

I was a history major, and my concentration was Middle East and North Africa studies.

What are you up to these days?

I am a journalist and TV producer with NBC News based in their London bureau.

What years were you involved with Wilder Voice and what positions did you hold?

If I remember correctly, I was involved with Wilder Voice my last two years at Oberlin. I think I had some sort of editor role or something for the first semester that I was involved, and then for two or three semesters I was Managing Editor underneath an Editor-in-Chief.

What kind of role did WV play for you in those two years at Oberlin?

It was such a special place. Anytime I think about Wilder Voice, the first thing that comes to mind is just a feeling of community and warmth. I thought it was an incredibly creative space, it was a safe space in more than one way, it was an open space, and it was just a consistent, great place to have, to be spending some of my free time.

Could you talk a bit about what you mean when you say it was a safe space?

It just felt like there was a lot of diversity—internally, [and] externally. I felt like we were very open and creative with the ways that we put the magazine together. We always were open to taking ideas from our contributors, from our other editors, and we did a lot of  really interesting layouts with the magazine. Like I remember one year, we had one poet, and their poems were interspersed throughout articles, or we had, one year, one artist design art interspersed throughout the articles. I felt like we were always coming up with new and different ways to put the magazine together.

We’d love to know about the art that you published in the magazine. How did you guys go about getting art and how were you thinking about art during your tenure?

It always just felt, like, really dynamic, which goes back to what I was saying about how I felt like it was such an open and creative place, professionally. We took very seriously how we would reflect 3D mediums into the print magazine, so we would make sure we had the right photographer, or right photocopy. And I also remember we did a couple articles where we actually embedded somebody’s modern art into an article—so art that wasn’t directly related to the article, but was like a brief pause while you’re reading. You could view this art embedded in the page. And I remember just thinking that was so creative and beautiful. The articles can be very long in Wilder Voice, and I loved that we were open to including art even within the layout of the magazine and articles.

What do you think you learned from your time at WV?

Being a manager, I learned a lot about how to work together as a team and how to manage staff, how to manage writers—but mostly, definitely the teamwork aspect. I learned how to be on a team and work together.

“I think it is an incredibly unique experience to have the opportunity to put together a magazine that is such high quality.”

We’d love to know what you did right after you got out of Oberlin, and if (or how) WV factored into that or helped you with that.

I actually sometimes still have Wilder Voice on my resume, because at the time we had a pretty big budget and it was the first time as a young person that I had managed that kind of money and that amount of staff—plus upholding the journalistic integrity of the magazine. So for me it just showed a level of responsibility that employers were interested in, and it was proof that I had experience in journalism. I went pretty much right into journalism after I graduated. I knew I wanted to do that. I actually remember, when I applied for internships and Winter Terms, I had given copies of the magazine to potential employers because I was so proud of it. I thought it was so impressive and an incredible example of the work that we can do as young journalists.

What’s your favorite WV memory?

My favorite Wilder Voice memory is probably the interview that I did with Zeinab Abul-Magd, who’s the [Middle East and North African studies] history professor. It was an incredible experience to sit down with my advisor, with someone whom I considered a mentor, and have the space and the time to publish this back-and-forth and let her tell her story and her experience.

On the flipside, do you have a worst WV memory?

I wouldn’t say that there are any worst ones, ’cause I worked with such great, calm people. I would say that I do remember the days leading up to printing being quite stressful. I remember spending very long hours and [have] distinct memories of, at the end of the semester, spending very very late evenings [at the WV office]. Leaving-when-it-was-dark-out evenings. I do remember it being down to the wire.

What, to your knowledge, was WV’s “reputation” on campus?

[Laughs] Definitely a bit posh. We had a sort of posh reputation, to put it nicely. I think we also had a reputation of really hard journalism, like hard news journalism. We had a reputation of really brilliant writing. We had a reputation of taking a look at very interesting and complex stories.

What do you think is the most essential thing about WV that makes it WV?

I think it is an incredibly unique experience to have the opportunity to put together a magazine that is such high quality, to be able to have a publication that takes art seriously, that takes poetry seriously, plus doing hard news articles and interesting investigations. I think that is a very, very unique experience as a college student and it definitely makes the magazine stand out.

Is there anything you wish you had done at WV that you didn’t, or anything that you would have done differently in hindsight?

I would’ve taken more moments to be mindful and be present in those experiences. Wilder Voice was one of many things I was involved in at Oberlin, and yet it was probably one of the most precious memories I have, so my only wish would be that I would be more mindful […] you know, take a deep breath and take in those late-night editing sessions, ’cause I remember it very fondly. 

Is there anything that you were surprised, or not surprised, to learn while working with Oberlin writers?

I just remember being genuinely impressed with the empathy and the journalistic integrity of all of the journalists I worked with at Oberlin and how they approached their reporting, from the newspaper to Wilder Voice

Do you think there’s anything about Oberlin that draws so many people to doing journalism here or going into journalism later?

Yeah! I think it fosters a curiosity, and an empathy, and an openness, and those are some of the most fundamental characteristics of journalists.

Thanks so much for doing this!

Yeah, it’s really cool. It’s tough to have a legacy when people are just there four years on a rotation, and I think going back and doing something like this is huge, because it’ll be referred to for years to come, too.

Elizabeth Kuhr graduated from Oberlin College in 2014 with a degree in history. She is an NBC News journalist based in London. Elizabeth writes, films, edits, and produces stories for TV and digital.

Photos courtesy of Elizabeth Kuhr.

Categories
Institutional Memory

In Conversation With Wilder Voice’s Founders

by The Editors | Institutional Memory | Web Exclusive

Former Wilder Voice editors Meena Hasan, Louise Hanks, and John West.

A discussion of late nights spent in Mudd, the mid-’00s Oberlin mediasphere, and how Wilder Voice found its name—and its footing.


The first issue of Wilder Voice went to press in 2005. Fifteen years of continuous publication is an accomplishment for any literary magazine today, let alone a college rag with a near-100% turnover rate every four years. To commemorate a decade and a half of providing Oberlin students with a space to share true stories, we are launching a new interview series, “Institutional Memory,” to explore the magazine’s history through conversations with former staff members. For our inaugural installment, we caught up with some of the publication’s first editors—Louise Hanks ’09, Meena Hasan ’09, Heather Jones ’09, Sadie Nachtigal ’09, and John West ’12—over Zoom to ask them about their time at the magazine.

—The Editors


Could you tell us about what Wilder Voice was like when you were working on it?

Heather Jones: It was originally a much smaller publication and magazine, and it was a smaller format—print—and, basically, all of the people who ran it graduated and handed it down, randomly, to me and this other girl, Amanda, who worked on it for a little bit but then she quit. So then I reached out to Sadie and we were like, “We don’t love this name, it’s kind of pretentious”—the Journal of Proper Thought—“we want to rename it and make it something totally different.” We were kind of picturing this full-length, glossy magazine. We wanted to make it a lot more professional and we wanted to incorporate a lot of new writers. It was a very bumpy, stressful start. I remember, it was sophomore year and it was me and Sadie and Annie working on it at that point and, you know, just pulling all-nighters trying to finish this magazine. My favorite story is from when we read it all during the blackout on a flip cell phone.

Meena Hasan: Oh God.

Heather: It was a rough beginning but we have some good memories! 

John West: [Holding up a stack of old issues of Wilder Voice] Here they all are.

Sadie Nachtigal: Oh my God, I’m so glad you have full evidence and props. Remind me, Heather, if I’ve got this wrong, but I think the Journal of Proper Thought was very… It was 8×5” format, kind of posturing as a very tongue-in-cheek, Victorian, kind of Oscar Wilde snark vibe. Wasn’t Lena Dunham the editor?

John: She was published in it.

Heather: I think she was one of the editors, actually. She was one of the people who graduated and passed it down. We went to a meeting with her.

Sadie: Yeah, yeah, okay. I mean, there were things we liked about it, and I think we were definitely pretentious in our own way. [We were] like, “This is going to be like the New Yorker!”

John: It was like the New Yorker, Sadie, it was.

Sadie: I’m not so sure.

John: Better! 

Sadie: But yeah, at the beginning there were definitely a lot of differences about the style, about the format, about the name, about what type of journalism we were going to do.

Meena: In terms of design, there was always an argument, about how to maintain a certain level of authority while also looking pretty clean and crisp. 

John: Yeah, I remember I was really… I had very strong opinions about layout. That was how I started, working in layout, and we wanted to make it a full-size magazine instead of a half-sheet, and then Meena came on board and was like, “John, you have to stop putting borders around everything.” I think one thing you said was, “John, what are you doing?” And I still am like, yeah, you’re right about that, actually.

Meena: But we had to keep the borders! The compromise was to reduce the size. We were very aware of the way design art looks so it makes sense to put borders, but as soon as we graduated, they were gone.

John: I want you to know that in retrospect, you were right and I was wrong. I’m admitting it right here right now: I was wrong about the borders. 

Heather: Also, editing was really important. That was a priority. We spent a lot of time with the articles doing rounds of editing. We were really careful. We became really close as a team. We would be in the library and we’d have the article up on the screen and we’d all sit in chairs and group-edit, which was such a special experience.

Editors Annie Strother, Sadie Nachtigal, and Heather Jones work on the Spring 2007 issue of Wilder Voice.

Sadie: I can’t believe—it was so fun! All the editing! Now I have a real job and it’s like, this is a pale shadow of when I edited cool articles!

John: I do wonder if some of this isn’t tinged with nostalgia, because I also remember being soooo tired by the end. Just totally deranged beyond all belief. 

Sadie: Also, 100% it was a bad use of time I was going to regret. At one point, there was a giant reggae festival on Wilder Bowl, and we were in the A-Level. “I really wish we could get all these issues to Oberlin, this is important, people care!” And now I’m like, “Why were we not at the reggae festival?”

Heather: Totally. We tried to make [the editing process] really structured. Quality was super important to us. We focused a lot on bringing in people’s personal stories and making room… we were open to publishing all types of articles and taking risks and talking about things that people were not talking about. I remember we had a Wilder Voice survey and we would ask all of these touchy questions.

John: It continued on for a while.

Louise Hanks: Yeah, I do remember that. I think there were a lot of brave moments in there. I remember having somebody talking about eating disorders; I was talking about sexual assault. There were lots of big moments where people were sort of coming out to the Oberlin community about something that had happened to them or something they were dealing with. And so part of those meetings was, “Let’s look at your article and get it up to snuff,” but it was also—now I’m in the therapy world and it was a little bit of that going on—a lot of validation, and “Oh, this is great!”

“I will say with the name, I remember there was a big brouhaha from Wilder Hall.”

John West

We feel like looking back, there were a lot more journalistic stories, and now we’re getting a lot more personal narrative stories. We were wondering if you tried to strike a balance between personal narratives and more journalistic pieces?

Louise: I think we were trying to make a point to connect the personal narratives with bigger issues that were going on at the time. The combo of “This is how I was affected, and this is how it fits in with what’s going on in the world.”

John: I will say that there’s a cycle that happens. I stayed at Oberlin for a non-embarrassing amount of time after everyone else graduated. For a couple of years it was really heavy journalism and then, as a new team of editors took over, including Sasha Jones, Heather’s sister, they wanted to bring in more personal voices, very explicitly. During my tenure, it was much more longform journalism-y, and I think it got a reputation of being explicitly for that. We had a memoir section at the end of the magazine, but that was where memoir was, and everything else was kind of journalistic writing. But one of the issues is that as the reputation develops, it kind of steamrolls a bit and then a new cohort came in and [the magazine] changed again. But that’s kind of the meeting point of what the editors want and what the reputation is. 

Sadie: We explicitly wanted to create a space for longform journalism because there wasn’t another outlet [for it] and we wanted to be able to support people and do the research ourselves and do the heavy hitting—it sounds so pretentious—really in-depth, very serious things that we didn’t necessarily have another outlet for.

We’d love to know how you settled on Wilder Voice as the name. And how’d you decide to focus it on longform journalism? 

Heather: Sadie came up with the name.

Sadie: I don’t remember how, exactly. I think we were just sitting in Wilder, playing with different names and it was just an idea I had. 

John: I will say with the name, I remember there was a big brouhaha from Wilder Hall. They were mad that we had picked Wilder Voice as the name, and as a result, even up until 2012, we had to put, “Wilder Voice is not affiliated in any way with Wilder Hall or the Wilder Student Union” at the end of the magazine. 

Sadie: I think I wanted to call it “the Wilder Voice” and it was shot down. That was the right decision. The longform journalism is credited to Heather and John being very much aligned, but I also think we found that there wasn’t much space to really read or write these kinds of really in-depth articles that we wanted to hear. People study such interesting things in their classes and are thinking so seriously about such a wide range of things and there’s not necessarily a forum for people to hear that that has no other constraints than making a good piece. I think, also—and feel free to disagree with or add onto this—but we felt like it was a time when longform journalism was super super in danger. I thought that I might never write for the New Yorker, I might never get a full-time job where anyone pays me to write longform journalism about some topic I find interesting. [I thought that working at Wilder Voice] might be the only chance where I don’t have to worry about being paid and can just do that with my friends. 

Wilder Voice is what trained me to be an editor.”

Heather Jones

Heather: That was definitely an element of the beauty of the freedom to devote so many pages to a story, but cost was always an issue, especially at the beginning. I just remember walking through the snow to so many different co-op meetings to try and ask for twenty-five dollars. Like, waiting an hour to speak just to be like, “We request 25 dollars for Wilder Voice” and doing that seven times over the course of the night to get a printing budget. But that was something we really wanted, to get a really professional-looking magazine, and that was more expensive than what had been spent on it before, so raising that money was a lot of work. I know at least after we left, Wilder Voice got more funding and got an office, but that was the uphill struggle in the beginning. But [it was important because] how long [Wilder Voice] was was very valuable because we fought for that.

Heather: Going back to what we were saying about it being a tight crew, this was kind of our thing, our extracurricular, and we did spend a lot of time on it. I think that was just one of the keys to success, and it was fun to spend a lot of time on it because we all got along so well so it was easy to, you know, sacrifice a night or whatever. And yeah [there was] just the fun of making a lot of creative decisions together and making a product that we felt really proud of. But it did take a lot of time. I feel like I devoted as much time to Wilder Voice as I did to any classes.

John: Or the aggregate of all of the classes, even.

Sadie: John put in a lot of hours. 

John: I had to make sure everything lined up perfectly, you know, it took a lot to put in all the borders…

Sadie: It’s not like there was never tension or anything, but we all had very high standards and respected each other’s high standards and were rigorous in different ways. Maybe it’s not even that, maybe it’s losing a sense of perspective for a college magazine. I remember we would proofread together and print out the entire magazine and everyone would read it and read it and read it, and no one was like, “This isn’t a good use of our time!” We were all just like, “There can be no typos ever!” And then we would be like, “Are we doing Oxford commas?” and we would have a long conversation about that. And then it would come out and there would be typos and we would be so crazy from finals anyway, someone would find a typo and we’d just cry or something.

Heather: Having been in the work world for a long time, it is hard to find positive work environments, so [Wilder Voice was] special. It’s a really good experience to have before going into the work world, and I feel like the experience of Wilder Voice is what has helped me get most of my jobs. It’s how I got my first job. I was a lowly marketing intern [in the publishing world]—I hate marketing, that was just the only way I could get in—and I was carrying a manuscript to the editing team and I found a typo in this final manuscript and pulled it out and was like, “Hi, I just found this little typo.” And the editor was like, “Hi, who are you, what’s your name?” and then I got an interview two weeks later. Wilder Voice is what trained me to be an editor, none of my classes, it was just working with you guys and being rigorous and having those high standards and being really obsessive over everything, which, you know, you could argue was healthy or unhealthy…

Sadie: I think it’s good to have that personal relationship [with other staff members]. You feel that feeling when things really [work] and then you kind of search for that again in the next thing you do. Even today, I was having lunch and someone was like, “What’s your ideal work environment?” and I was like, “Wilder Voice.”

We’re very curious, as far as you all were aware, what was Wilder Voice’s reputation in comparison with the Plum Creek Review or the Grape?

Heather: What stands out to me is that I felt very intimidated by the people who worked at the Grape. It seemed very insular, like you might not be accepted. I just remember feeling kind of afraid to even go in… And there was a really certain tone for all the articles that I thought was cool, but I just don’t think I probably could have done it. And I remember the Review feeling really restricted, it wasn’t a  place where you could be really open and creative.

Sadie: Absolutely, [when I worked at the Review] it was a very intense and unhappy environment where people were just in and out, getting paid and leaving. I mean, it was the college newspaper so it had a more standardized kind of approach. And also, just reading them from the outside, the Review has a very traditional voice, very straight-laced, whereas the Grape was a very specific counterpoint. I enjoyed reading the Grape but it was a very specific snark that I think even now would be pretty controversial in terms of not being super inclusive or PC. Sometimes I felt like it was speaking to a very specific inside joke. Plum Creek, they were focused more on poetry and fiction, and we were more research-based and longform format. 

John: I’m actually married to the former editor of the Plum Creek Review, in a little bit of Oberlin incestuousness for you, but yeah, that’s exactly right. What set Wilder Voice apart was that there were no other publications that were dedicated to longform journalism. The Plum Creek Review didn’t publish nonfiction, it was fiction and poetry and art, and there was nothing creative about the Review—it was important work that the Review was doing but it was not creative nonfiction, and the Grape was shortform. 

Editors Louise Hanks, Heather Jones, and John West at Black River with Wilder Voice mentor Laurie McMillin and Wilder Voice writers Nora Sharp and Katie Sontag.

Could you talk a little bit about the art that you published in the magazine? Because the art we’ve seen in Wilder Voice has always been really professional.

Meena: There’s definitely a certain kind of art that’s best for publishing. We knew the printer really well and we knew those limitations and simple things like high contrast, interesting compositions, graphic shapes, those were kind of the guiding principles for what I was looking for. I was also in the Senior Studio class and I’m pretty sure I asked almost everybody in that class for a submission at some point and everyone was more than happy to do that. John Pearson was this amazing silkscreen professor and he  guided this very strong design mentality. A few students who worked with him after we graduated were fully indebted to him. 

What did you all major in at Oberlin?

Meena: Art

Heather: Comp lit and French

Sadie: Comp lit, French, and Russian

John: Philosophy and historical performance

John, what do you play?

John: Recorder. Musical, really musical!

What did you want to do with the magazine that you never got to do?

John: I didn’t want to do it at the time, but now in retrospect I wish I had been more attuned to the interplay of how Oberlin sits in the broader northeast Ohio region. I think it would have been really cool to, for example, commission someone who’s a northeast Ohio writer to write about [Oberlin’s position in the region]. All of this stuff that would have been really cool to do about the landscape of Lorain County that we just never did. That was really a missed opportunity.

Heather: I completely agree with that. I wish we could have done more journalism about our local context and stuff that was happening in Cleveland and around that area. We also wanted to do publishing and that was something that John did after we left, but we had all talked about starting our own publishing company after graduating, and that was a dream we had until we realized that the publishing industry was kind of crashing…

Sadie: Graduating in 2009!

Heather: We had this dream of doing more publishing, creating space for people to tell new stories that might not have been getting heard or might not have worked at traditional publishing houses but that we would have published and made them really artsy. I remember Meena having some really cool ideas about what that could look like. One of the really cool things we started doing was including professors and having them write pieces.

John: Yeah, and the professors loved it. We worked with Brian Doan, who I think passed away really sadly a couple of years ago, but he was a film professor and he was quite young and he wrote a really great piece for us. I remember he reached out to me because he wanted to let me know that he had put that piece on a CV for a job application—he was really excited about the fact that he had published this thing. He made it seem like he had to publish a certain kind of thing as an academic, so it was fun for him to get to write something a little more adventurous. Even though it was for a student magazine, he really appreciated being able to do that. That was really gratifying. Laurie McMillin wrote for us, I remember.

Meena: Wilder Voice is just such an open platform that embraces subtlety and nuance as a really core value of its structure. We were so full of ideas and so passionate about so many options. There were so many different ways it could go. I think there was one point we were reaching out to publications at other schools and trying to build partnerships across the country and have guest writers and open up that network even more. I don’t think we ever got there, but that would be cool to set up an exchange.

John: One thing I’ll say… I don’t mean this as a discouraging thing about the web, I love the web, but […] We made a website and I don’t think people really went there. Times are different now than they were in 2011 or whenever, but one thing that’s really exciting and interesting about being on a college campus is that you’re on a college campus. It’s so rare to live in this small town with all your friends, and even rarer to have cultural artifacts that only have meaning within that small town with all your friends. What made Wilder Voice so special to me was the physicality of it, because it was tethered to this place with all these people, and we all tried to make messy meaning there together. I think that there’s something really unique and special and wonderful about a geographical area, because now, especially if you’re in a certain cohort, you might live in New York and there are a lot of friends in your neighborhood, but there’s something really unique and wonderful about the physicality of Oberlin and the way that a magazine or publication can inhabit that space. 

Louise Hanks graduated from Oberlin in 2009, and currently works at a middle school in Austin, Texas where she facilitates restorative justice practices for staff and students. Louise holds a Master’s in social work and is pursuing her clinical license. She’s passionate about mental health and justice reform, loves beach volleyball and dancing, and can’t seem to ever leave Texas for good.

Meena Hasan received her B.A. in Studio Art from Oberlin College in 2009 and her MFA in Painting and Printmaking from Yale School of Art in 2013, where she won the Carol Schlosberg Memorial Prize for Painting. She has participated in a number of group exhibitions including Sheherezade’s Gift at the Center for Book Arts, NY, Stages at Zürcher Gallery, NY, Bosch Young Talent Show at The Stedelijk Museum, Den Bosch, The Netherlands and Ying/Yang at 0.0 Gallery, L.A. Currently, Meena is a full-time Lecturer in Painting at the School of Visual Arts at Boston University’s College of Fine Arts. 

Heather Jones graduated from Oberlin in 2009, and currently works as the program director for an Austin, Texas creative writing nonprofit called Austin Bat Cave. Heather holds a Master’s in social work from the University in Texas at Austin and is passionate about developing programs that teach writing as a tool for activism, healing, and social change. 

Sadie Nachtigal graduated from Oberlin in 2009, and she currently works as EU marketing manager for Employer Brand at Amazon. She holds a Master’s in International Management from ESCP Europe, and lives in Paris, where she spends her time finding new ways to explore the city, most recently by bike and on roller skates. 

John West graduated from Oberlin in 2012, and he currently works as a computational journalist and technologist in the R&D Lab of the Wall Street Journal. He holds an MFA in writing from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and he lives in Boston with his partner, a baby, and a cat.

First image courtesy of John West; all others courtesy of Heather Jones.

Categories
Visual Processes

Visual Processes: Eva Kocher

interviewed by Bridget Conway | Visual Processes | Spring 2019

Works by Eva Kocher

Bridget Conway for Wilder Voice: Give us a brief introduction to your art. What themes and ideas do you work with? What materials?

Eva Kocher: Since starting at Oberlin, I’ve really been driven by my identity. I have been making work that relates to my Blackness and my struggle to find a place as a biracial person who comes from a displaced Black heritage. But my personal story is what I usually tend to draw my inspiration from. Dealing with these different struggles, I’ve had to find my own voice in art history and I think a lot of when I first started making work I was doing all the photography and making art that spoke to that very explicitly.

In my junior year, I decided that I wanted to take a step back from creating images that felt a little bit too obvious or heavy-handed. I wanted to go back to working with my hands and try to evoke the same sort of visceral reactions that I was trying to do in my photography through physical objects. Finding this abstractness in this relationship to Blackness. When I was first beginning to make work I related it to my history, my Blackness and my identity as a woman of color, specifically a biracial woman, and existing in this world, but also in Oberlin College––I felt like I really needed to prove myself as an artist.

There’s just so much pressure to create work that talks about my identity, so I wanted to step away from that and create work that just spoke to me. I trust that it all has to do with who I am and the experiences that I have, but it isn’t trying to prove anything to anyone else. It’s more about an experience of catharsis for myself, a rebuilding and recontextualization of my history and where I exist in history. I began making more sculptures and, in my junior year, I started working a lot with hair, as you can see here. I am going back to that this year which I’m really excited about. Hair for me has always been this very charged thing.

My mom is African-American, my dad is white, blonde. I always was told that I grew up with “good hair,” that’s just a term that’s used a lot in the Black community. Being biracial, I had looser curls and I was told to love my natural hair. There are all of these ideas of class and gender and femininity wrapped up in hair. My mom has a lot of struggles, a lot of internal conflict. She grew up in an upper-middle-class Black family, so there are all of these things that she hung on to. She was trying to live vicariously through me, her light-skinned biracial daughter. Me and my mom are super close and so I always hung onto every word that she said and I really wanted to always be the best for her. Once I came to college I connected to the Black community here and found myself in that community in a different way––separate from my own family. I was thinking about ways in which I could exert my own autonomy by changing my hairstyles: getting boxed braids and getting extensions with synthetic hair and using that as a way to connect myself to this culture that I was always told I couldn’t be a part of.

My work is very process-based and a lot of the work that I make comes out of a very long contemplative process. Creating work and going through the ritual is doing these certain things which will then ultimately lead to the final production. So, I started off doing a lot of braiding with various materials––I was using a rope, I was using synthetic areas, using real hair and making these long braids. I was doing that because the ritual of braiding felt very important. It felt very connected to this history of braiding in the Black community, which is something I wasn’t really exposed to in the same way that a lot of other Black people were. But not having done that disconnected me from something. I started doing that and was creating a lot of different sculptures with hair. I created a few prints using hair and seeing how I can insert myself this thing that I wasn’t really a part of.

I also did a photography project with my mom during junior year where I had her dress up in different traditional styles, like hairstyles that are a part of Black culture. I had her wear a wig, I had her wear a durag, I had her hair natural, I put a scarf on her head and wrapped her hair, and took these portraits. They were these very raw depictions of her. That was really important for me moving forward this year. Work in the past has often been very emotionally taxing for me––constantly making work that is meaningful. I was kind of trying to step back from that, so I started doing a lot of drawing this year, going back and making things that were more abstract.

I started thinking about the other ways I’ve been empowered as a woman of color. I started thinking about sports: expressions of aggression and movement and music. I was forcing myself to trust my intuition and trust that all these things are a part of me. Creating art as a woman of color in itself is a revolutionary act, and Black abstraction is not something to stray from. In a lot of ways, it has been even more empowering to be able to make work that is inherently tied to who I am but doesn’t have to speak explicitly to my experience. Or translate that experience for the viewer and create work that feels good and is coming from a very real place.

Coming into my final thesis exhibition, I wanted to go back to making work that didn’t speak very explicitly to my experience. I’m working a lot with generations. Something that was a huge part of my family history was tied to Martha’s Vineyard. My mom’s family was one of the first Black family to own property on Martha’s Vineyard and my family’s been going there for the past seven generations. I’m the seventh generation, and so the number seven is coming up a lot in my work. A huge part of my displacement and disconnection from the outside of my family is because there’s a complicated history resulting in my family having to give up a lot, and not really being able to continue that connection to Martha’s Vineyard. A lot of family trauma has been caused by that and that has been like a really really difficult experience that I’ve grappled with for a very long time. I’m trying to go back through it and recreate my own, I don’t want to say history, but try to create a future that feels less tied to trauma and more about rebuilding in the way that I know how to. I am trying to focus less on the things that I feel detached from and I tend to dwell on the negative parts of my history. But I want to focus on my history in a way that’s meaningful for me and not for anyone else.

BC: I’m really intrigued by your charcoal drawings. Can you explain what you’re referencing and your process for them?

EK: I’m really inspired by the work of David Hammons. He’s incredible. He’s a Black installation artist, activist and performance artist. He has these pieces that are whole-body prints. In some of his earliest works, he covered certain parts of his body in oil and printed basketballs and stuff like that. That’s a body of work that is really inspiring to me, especially when I was first working with hair. So I have had these boxing gloves for a while. As a woman of color, I often feel like I’m defending myself and having to find ways to feel empowered within myself. I’m working with the ideas of protection and femininity. I am also thinking about the exertion of anger. I’m highlighting the beauty and light in anger and aggression- -not just as a woman, but specifically as a woman of color. I am thinking about that a lot. There are lots of associations with boxing and African-Americans. So I have these gloves, and they are making me think about a lot of things.

Outside of that, I was really fascinated by how they’re cracking. It reminded me a lot of human skin and self-preservation. I was wondering how I could I find a way to print this because I really wanted to use this texture. Originally, I was going to paint a page and print it. But then I realized that wasn’t going to work. I was like, maybe I could use charcoal. So I covered that original piece of paper with charcoal and tried to put my fist to it, but it didn’t show up. Obviously, it didn’t work out at all. But then I wondered how I could get the charcoal off of my gloves, so I punched another piece of paper to just try to get it off and I really was fascinated by the way the charcoal came off of the paper. When I punched it, it just felt really beautiful. It felt like a performance in a way that felt really empowering to me. So I started making these prints, and I was like, what if I was able to capture this action on a piece of paper? And what if you were able to see the vibrations and see the power that I put into this, and find some sort of like beauty in that? So, I started creating all of these prints, and every time I did it, I would do a different combination. They feel really serious, but they’re also very playful. I was like, okay, I’ll frame them to give them this reverence, but in this very playful way. Every time I did a different combination, I would write what I did. I was thinking of the titles as a way to explain the way that each one made me feel. I decided to tie it back to who I am rather than the actual icons of boxing because boxing is something I don’t really have any experience or history with. But this act was really meaningful and a huge part of my process and my thought process in this whole project that I’ve been working on like this whole body of work it just felt really essential. I felt like there is a need to sort of just like put my own personhood into the pieces and it’s kind of like what the newer titles are related to.

BC: Could you talk about the various pops of color around the studio? How does color figure in your work?

EK: In my house, there is a lot of African art. My great aunt was a figure in the Harlem Renaissance. She had a lot of pieces with a ton of color in them. That was my first inspiration and my first example of a successful Black female artist. I think just having these big pops of color have always kind of like brought me back to that. I’m thinking about the history of African art and work from West Africa. I was also inspired by the colors we considered in class with Matthew Rarey. So I started doing a lot of investigation of that. I was also part of a group called Dance Diaspora which is West African dance. It was one of the many ways that I was able to really find community here among other students of color. I was very inspired by the prints that we wore in the performances. Those colors are important to me. The color red has also always been important–it’s in the American flag, and to me it symbolizes blood and pain. It’s also in the Swiss flag. I always go back to red. I’m always attracted to red. With the black and white, I don’t really know if there is a reason. I’m really attracted to like very simplistic things, and there’s always been this like cleanliness and order associated with like just like black and white images for me.

BC: Who or what do you count as inspiration for your work?

EK: It’s hard to say, honestly. I have so many inspirations. My first and foremost inspiration is my mom. She’s a part of everything I do, every work I create. And by extension, my grandma (my Nana), who passed away when I was eleven. She continues to be a huge part of who I am. And then my dad, and my family in general. I’ve always been really really close to them and they shaped me into who I am. They are behind everything in terms of my artistic inspirations. I am also inspired by David Hammons, as I mentioned earlier. One of my hugest inspirations ever. And he continues to be. And Johnny Coleman is one of my greatest inspirations and mentors. There’s like a lot of different artists I’m inspired by that I haven’t mentioned. I kind of go in waves of who’s inspiring me at the moment.

In my house, there is a lot of African art. My great aunt was a figure in the Harlem Renaissance. She had a lot of pieces with a ton of color in them. That was my first inspiration and my first example of a successful Black female artist. I think just having these big pops of color have always kind of like brought me back to that. I’m thinking about the history of African art and work from West Africa. I was also inspired by the colors we considered in class with Matthew Rarey. So I started doing a lot of investigation of that. I was also part of a group called Dance Diaspora which is West African dance. It was one of the many ways that I was able to really find community here among other students of color. I was very inspired by the prints that we wore in the performances. Those colors are important to me. The color red has also always been important–it’s in the American flag, and to me it symbolizes blood and pain. It’s also in the Swiss flag. I always go back to red. I’m always attracted to red. With the black and white, I don’t really know if there is a reason. I’m really attracted to like very simplistic things, and there’s always been this like cleanliness and order associated with like just like black and white images for me.

BC: Who or what do you count as inspiration for your work?

EK: It’s hard to say, honestly. I have so many inspirations. My first and foremost inspiration is my mom. She’s a part of everything I do, every work I create. And by extension, my grandma (my Nana), who passed away when I was eleven. She continues to be a huge part of who I am. And then my dad, and my family in general. I’ve always been really really close to them and they shaped me into who I am. They are behind everything in terms of my artistic inspirations. I am also inspired by David Hammons, as I mentioned earlier. One of my hugest inspirations ever. And he continues to be. And Johnny Coleman is one of my greatest inspirations and mentors. There’s like a lot of different artists I’m inspired by that I haven’t mentioned. I kind of go in waves of who’s inspiring me at the moment.

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Visual Processes

Visual Processes: Nina Josephson

interviewed by Bridget Conway | Visual Processes | Fall 2018

Nina Josephson, Captured Beast

Bridget Conway for Wilder Voice: Tell me a little bit about your work!

Nina Josephson: So I like to create these sort of weird brightly colored bizarre creatures primarily with papier mâché and with needle pointed felt. And so the sort of thought behind all of this is that I’m trying to represent the weird little beast that lives inside of all of us. And like here these creatures that represent like the various visceral emotions and actions that people take that we’d normally just sort of bottle up; love and sorrow, entrapment, motherhood. I’m sort of just trying to think about how I can draw out the beast within us and focus on this little kernel of truth inside of people through these ridiculous forms. And just one more thing I’ve done because I think that it may be confusing: These forms are so strange and surreal and alien and goofy, my hope is that I sort of hope they’re so unlike yourself when you’re looking at them that it sort of gives the viewer space to connect to them and see themselves in these because they’re so, so bizarre and so out there that you know you’re not necessarily looking for a connection and the connection will find you.

BC: Yeah they look kind of like almost like cartoon characters but from like a scary children’s show or something like that.

NJ: Yeah, yeah.

BC: They find this really nice line between almost scary and and just kind of unsettling but also like I want to pet one!

NJ: Well I definitely like to play along that line of, like, creepy and cute and scary and playful especially now. I feel like now I’m sort of moving out of the gross-out weird pickled pigs and chicken feet. I sort of have moved away from that, chilled out a little bit, but I don’t know I think that’s a really fun sort of dichotomy to engage with.

BC: So other than moving into this more fantastical world how has your work changed as you’ve grown into senior studio and your time just as an art student at Oberlin?

NJ: It’s crazy! I started out printmaking and was just super into printmaking, which is still cool, but I think it was just like the first medium that I was introduced to at a college level and was really pumped about and was, I don’t know, just at an exciting start and then sort of as I started taking more classes and started questioning what makes good art and what I should be sort of working towards, I started moving into the third dimension a little bit. This is the first year that I’ve fully done the 3D stuff but definitely my work is a lot more playful, and a lot lighter. I don’t take art less seriously but I take my own art less seriously and just have sort of given myself more space to just do things that are fun rather than like being like “oh, how will this go over at the critique?” Yeah, I’m happy with the direction I’m sort of taken.

BC: Yeah! Other than just taking more classes why do you think that your scope and motives have shifted?

NJ: I guess just engaging more seriously with the art world and taking myself more seriously as an artist who can actually make things that are actually art. That sort of switch and understanding where you’re like, “Oh, I can create art too.” Taking your work more seriously and placing more value in the things you create really makes you sort of change the style. I guess I’m being weird by saying I’m taking myself less seriously and also taking myself more seriously but I’m having more fun and taking myself seriously. Yeah, that’s what I would say!

BC: That makes sense. You can sense that you were pointing to some of these creatures and explaining what they were—what are you working on here? What’s this creature going to be?

NJ: This guy has six legs and he sort of is like a little daschund and he’s going to have a striped tail. And yeah I think this is sort of a process driven work because I don’t really know who he’s going to be until I’m finished with him. You know, I think their identities and characters sort of develop with the colors and the textures and the story happens as this guy happens so right now I don’t really know what’s going to happen with him, but I think he might have sort of been starting on a little baby for him, so maybe this one’s going to be a mommy too.

BC: Alright, I like it! So in your work do you  find a rhythm in the process? I’ve noticed in a lot of these they have a lot of similarities. So when you start a new piece, how do you decide where you’re going? Or do you just start off with some plaster and go for it?

NJ: I guess it’s like a little bit of a formula that I stick to to keep these creatures in the same sort of realm of existence. Like I like the heads with a rim so it looks like they’re wearing a little suit or something with their heads exposed. And I like the polka dots. And of course the bright colors. But in terms of their form, I sort of just wing it. I work with chicken wire and it’s like really hard on your hands. That’s the worst part to me, making the actual structure and I’m just rushing through it like, “I just gotta get this done!” And then you sort of create more of the form once you add the layers. I guess there’s direction and there isn’t direction. Sort of like a matrix that I’m following but each one is a little bit different. Sort of like trying to make it work as I’m working with it.

BC: Yeah! Are these ones that are hanging and fuzzy, are they constructed in the same way?

NJ: No, so these these are crazy! These ones are really big felted creatures—needle felted, out of that wool stuff that’s sort of like this fluff y wool roving. This has, like, a skeleton with one piece of wire and then you sort of wrap it like poly-fil or whatever and then the wool roving and then you, like, stab it up until it sort of forms a little guy like this.

BC: Another thing I’ve noticed is how those are obviously hanging to the walls and they have this wool felt that looks really inviting to touch and these other creatures are the size of a small dog or something like that. How do you want people who are looking out to interact with your work?

NJ: Oh, I want them to interact with it! Everyone always says that they want to pet these and I want them to, even the ones that aren’t as fuzzy. I think they’re so sweet and just to engage with them and touch them… I mean I make them out of papier mâché so they’re light and they’re durable and they’re not going to break. So yeah, I want people to think they’re like little puppies or babies and I want people to be excited about their bright colors.

BC: And it’s very fun! It’s kind of like they’re living with us in a children’s book.

NJ: Yeah. Yeah! I want to put them in a giant room of polka dots and really get it going.

BC: So you talked a little bit about, like, the reasons your process has changed, but what are some of your inspirations, artistic or otherwise, that inform the work you make?

NJ: Oh, well I definitely have my favorite artist influences. I really like Allison Schulnik who works in clay and also animation and also makes figurative animals but they’re super influential to me and I think about them a lot. Also Louise Bourgeois. Love those little creepy spider guys. I think all these artists who sort of have these weird alien creature animation things, not animations but animated creatures, those are really what I think about. I’m thinking about this whole world that already exists out there and all these different funky guys and I’m trying to sort of add my own into that space.

BC: Yeah like that, it’s very engaging. Is there anything else that you’d like to say about your work or that you want people to know when they look at these?

NJ: No, but I can plug my website! My website is ninajosephson.com and my Instagram is nina.makes.art, and that has my in-progress works!

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Visual Processes

Visual Processes: Octavia Bürgel

interviewed by Bridget Conway | Visual Processes | Spring 2018


Bridget Conway: Do you have an artist’s statement or intention for work that you’re working on right now, or work that you’ve worked on in the past?

Octavia Bürgel: Well, I don’t have an artist statement currently that I’m proud of, but I make work that’s largely photographic. I’ve been doing photography for eight years at this point. I mostly do work that talks about race in some capacity, as it directly relates to my experience. Recently, I’ve felt like my most comfortable ways to talk about that have been through abstraction, although the majority of my work is largely representational or figurative. I’ve been dealing a lot with ideas of identity and construction and how we can represent facets of identity through abstraction, but also through the repetition of specific motifs and imagery and ideas.

BC: What are some of those abstractions or other motifs that you rely on in such a representational media?

OB: I’ve been doing a lot of things with image distortion. So mostly distorting images to the point that they’re unrecognizable, and then questioning whether or not those images can realistically be called photographs. I think a lot of my real interest in photography is also embedded in the physical technique, the literal techniques and processes that are required in order to make a photograph. And so I think my work is very process-based because it’s consistently informed by whatever—however I’m printing or distorting the image. So recently, this woodblock that I just printed is like this photograph of a bunch of Oberlin baseball players in the 1800s. I’m trying to distort that to reshape the narrative about the importance of education, because this is like our school. And I think there’s a real way that sports and white maleness lend themselves very easily to glory and celebrity. And I feel like we talk so much about the “great American sports” and all of these things, but also this project for me is really about being like, yeah, OK those things are interesting, but like specifically at Oberlin, the legacy that we brag about has directly to do with the legacy of slavery. I feel a lot of my work is a constant sort of questioning and hopefully the work itself can be a process of answering.

BC: Do you want to speak a little bit about the work that you either brought or that you wanted to bring?

OB: Yeah, I’ll talk a little bit about the work I wanted to bring. So, I think for a long time—and this also very much coincides with my experience of growth and developing a sense of self and identity, in my college career. Because I think my earlier [work] or the work at least that I was doing when I… first started doing photography, it was just very simple. You know, you have a camera and you take pictures. And that’s just like what I did for years. Then I took a couple of photo classes here and there and the projects that I was doing were sort of related to identity, but more through like space. And then when I got to Oberlin, I started talking about my identity in this way that was mostly through self-portraiture. And I’ve found, oddly enough, that self-portraiture is a thing that I feel very comfortable doing. I think because you just need one person to do it. So more and more, as I’ve been in school and reading a lot about many of the Black artists who have come before me and who have been dealing with ideas of Blackness and abstraction, and Blackness as an abstraction, as a state of nothingness and death, I’ve been very much starting to be pulled in a more abstract or theoretical direction, and so I did this piece… last semester, it doesn’t have a title, but I was thinking a lot about landscapes and specifically urban landscapes, because every time I would go home to New York I was walking around and there’s just textures and colors and sounds and everything. And I was just like, Oh my God, you can’t synthesize a place into a photograph.

I have a lot of thoughts about photos in general too, but I think photographs, people usually think of as being reductive in some sense, as being a flattening of a real experience. And I definitely buy into that idea to a certain extent, and so last year I was really starting to think about landscape and textile. And so I did this piece that was—making these prints, both photographic and screen-printed—images of basketball courts because they’re just… I think that there’s just so much to be said for the basketball court as a symbol, as a graphic symbol. First of all, just because it’s so recognizable automatically, but also the court in so many Black communities is a really fraught space where it’s at once supposed to be representative of freedom and joy and the ability of movement and, I guess to a certain extent, the awareness of having a body is directly tied into any kind of physical activity. But then on the other hand, it’s also for many people a source of life and hope and the idea that… I don’t know, it’s just so much, it’s such an image of success, and I think that I just really wanted to trouble that invention. I was using a variety of media, and I was taking these images, of basketball courts and kind of… oh, I was distorting them! Oh my god, I didn’t even realize, but I was messing with them so they would print a little weirdly.

I have a lot of thoughts about photos in general too, but I think photographs, people usually think of as being reductive in some sense, as being a flattening of a real experience. And I definitely buy into that idea to a certain extent, and so last year I was really starting to think about landscape and textile. And so I did this piece that was—making these prints, both photographic and screen-printed—images of basketball courts because they’re just… I think that there’s just so much to be said for the basketball court as a symbol, as a graphic symbol. First of all, just because it’s so recognizable automatically, but also the court in so many Black communities is a really fraught space where it’s at once supposed to be representative of freedom and joy and the ability of movement and, I guess to a certain extent, the awareness of having a body is directly tied into any kind of physical activity. But then on the other hand, it’s also for many people a source of life and hope and the idea that… I don’t know, it’s just so much, it’s such an image of success, and I think that I just really wanted to trouble that invention. I was using a variety of media, and I was taking these images, of basketball courts and kind of… oh, I was distorting them! Oh my god, I didn’t even realize, but I was messing with them so they would print a little weirdly.

Before that, I guess the piece that sort of […] thinking a lot at the end of last year about race and that was really the first time that I was directly talking about race, because before that, my work that was mostly self-portraiture and it consisted of exactly that. But I would kind of just be like “Oh, this is about identity,” without putting any real kind of term onto it, because I think my experience of being half white and half Black always made me into a weird kind of thing that nobody really knew what to do with, where I felt ostracized from my white family and also ostracized from my Black family, and just didn’t really know if it was even remotely possible for me to talk about race because I didn’t know what I was. But also, I think so much of the experience of being a Black person and the experience of being a mixed person or any kind of person who is somehow “uncategorizable” or an anomaly, is feeling literally ignored and fully invisible. And so it’s really important to me that people actually have to be able to look at the work and engage with the work and not brush the work off. 

Image by Octavia Bürgel

Yeah, it took me awhile to figure out. So I started making work about Black masculinity, because I just had been thinking so much about all of these relatives that I had, and family members and friends. And all of these ideas are coming directly in a time when police brutality is, it’s constant, it’s everywhere. It’s impossible to get away from. And so not working within some kind of response to that or some kind of very emotional feeling about the way that this constant stream of murder was affecting me, felt, I don’t know, a little bit disingenuous. So I started making this work about Black masculinity by just sort of compiling archived family photos and printing them using a nineteenth-century photographic process. And I was printing on silk and that was the first time that I had ever printed on a material that wasn’t photo paper and it felt really, really exciting and freeing to be exploring different types of material. And so, for that piece specifically, it was really the silk that was so important to me because the whole “I can’t breathe” slogan was just everywhere and so I was just —these images need to be able to breathe, they need to be able to move. They can’t just exist as this flattened thing, and so now I feel, I’m very much in this phase of trying to understand how photography can be not a reductive thing but an additive process. And how can you make photos and prints and these very two dimensional objects into some construction of a life or an identity. 

BC: Where do you see your work going from here? What are your next projects planned for you know, senior year? Different media or continuing with photography? 

OB: I feel like I’m always going to be using photography in some sense… I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that the times that I’ve taken extended gaps from any kind of photo-related work have felt really, really weird…there are a lot of ideas that I’ve really been trying to work through this semester specifically about mixedness, of being mixed of any background. And I have been really fascinated because we’ve been doing a lot of readings in this printmaking class and also in this translation workshop that I’m in here. They’ve been mostly kind of theoretical texts, but they examine the ways that, for example, in translation, the way that there’s this dichotomy between the original and the copy, and the original and the facsimile. And the same I think can be said for printmaking. And photography too, you have the original moment and then you have a photograph, or you have the matrix or the drawing or whatever the idea is, and then you have the print. I think that that applies really well to a mixed race identity because there is the feeling of being other, and the feeling of being uncategorizable comes from being viewed as a copy, in a sense. But I do really want to start getting more sculptural and definitely less… I don’t want to say less figurative, because also some of the ideas that I—one of the main ideas that I want to do is fashion-related. And I think that there’s just so much to be done with fashion in terms of making it into art, and I also think that there’s so many ways that there can be fashion that is specifically for an outsider identity, and how does that represent us. So that’s kind of what I’m going to be working on next year, but I’m also working on a lot of other things. 

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Visual Processes

Visual Processes: Maya Howard-Watts

interviewed by Julia Friend | Visual Processes | Spring 2018


As we sit on the concrete bench outside the Allen to chat, Maya Howard-Watts picks up and meditates on a loose strip of grout.

Julia Friend: So tell me a little bit about how you got into art here.

Maya Howard-Watts: I declared [a studio art major] literally the last possible day. So I came into school thinking I was going to be a bio major on the pre-med track. Because I had a lot of conflicting feelings about going to college, especially at a private Liberal Arts school. So I thought, “OK, so you have the privilege to go here, so you need to be a doctor.” That’s just how it worked out in my mind, and I think that I saw that as a very tangible way to help people—literally healing, you know? And I took a bio class here and it just literally killed me, on top of the fact that all the intro classes are just designed to weed you out. […] And there was a guy in my bio class… we were just hanging out one night, and he asked, “Hey, do you want to look at some paintings by Basquiat?” And—it sounds so cliché now—and I replied “Sure, who’s that?” And he pulls out this book, this big book, beautiful glossy pages. And we were looking at it—Basquiat was the first black artist I was ever introduced to, and something just clicked for me. I was looking at these paintings and these drawings, and thought, “Oh my god, this is how it’s supposed to be; this is what art looks like; I have to do art.”

JF: That’s such a visceral response. What about it [was visceral]?

MHW: It was, it was; that’s the word. What about it—later on that night we were watching Basquiat interviews, and the way that he speaks is genius. We were watching clips from The Radiant Child, a documentary, and there was an interview where this guy—and I think this is common with Black artists, especially with white interviewers, where there’s this element of laughter that’s violent. People turn to tropes, and as [Basquiat] famously said, “I don’t want to be a museum mascot.” […] The way that he manipulated this interview, and the way that he spoke was amazing to me, and it comes through in his work… A lot of what he does, and you see it in his paintings and drawings, they’re just cluttered, they’re full, they’re packed with all of these symbols—copyright, trademark, quotation marks, words, all of these anatomical drawings, everyday items—and it became clear to me that [by] gathering these things in his pieces, you get a good sense of place and deep observation. There’s a rhythm in the way he repeats visual symbols.

JF: I definitely see a lot of those elements in your own work. How have those translated as you’ve become an artist yourself?

MHW: I think that looking at that work gave me a few things, and it wasn’t instant. I mean, it’s really been happening over four years here because like I said: [before Oberlin] I didn’t do art, I didn’t have any interest in art until I realized, “Oh, I have to, I have to.” After that point I stopped going to bio class, and I’d be sitting in Tappan for five hours a day, just drawing. I couldn’t stop. It became a way for me to heal—to draw the same tree over and over again for hours at a time. And of course it will never come out the same every time, because we’re not machines. That carried over in my wrapping, this binding motion—the repetitive action allows me to get in a rhythm that gives me headspace and muscle memory.

JF: Yeah, I was very struck by the video of you wrapping twine around your legs. Can you speak on that? What were you thinking about while you were doing that?

MHW: That was the second shoot I did of that. Initially I had this idea to have this triptych of photographs of me bound. But the photography was just too stagnant. I needed people to see the movement of my body. So I went back after lying in bed for days feeling depressed, and I told myself, “Get up, and go do it.” And that’s where it came from. I heard people ask [in critiques], “How did you get that way? We didn’t see you bound.” So I decided to swap [the photos] out for the process.

JF: And then you get more of the rhythm. 

MHW: Right! And I think that is how I feel a lot of the time: I feel bound. On that day, I felt bound to my bed. Sometimes I walk outside and I feel bound to what I imagine what other people think about me, how they treat me. So binding other objects, doing it to myself, gave me this cunning agency that I was really attracted to.

JF: Material is also very important to you, right?

MHW: It is very important to me. Going back to Basquiat, something that he made me realize were things I already did, which helped me to become an artist. One of which is that I’m a collector, a hoarder. I mean walking over here I picked [up this piece of grout]… 

JF: Yeah, I noticed that! So talk to me about scavenging. 

MHW: So [Basquiat’s] collecting all of these observations; he’s making and collecting all of these pieces of the world, and twine was a material that I collected… It’s this tick that’s been with me since I was a kid. There’s some sort of power in finding these things that people don’t see—that they walk past or don’t consider—that are very real. This [referring to the grout piece] had a life; this looks like a binding substance. So what is that? What is it doing? This is now charged; this has lived a life. So the twine—I was in the Allen, and I saw this piece by Jackie Winsor called “Four Corners.” The piece is a sculpture made of wood and hemp, and I gravitated towards the wrapping and wrapping of the hemp. I thought it was so powerful. And I don’t know what it was, maybe I couldn’t get my hands on hemp and I found twine, but I was struck by the idea of fibers. And suddenly it was, “OK, now I have to read up on twine!” These things come to you, and it’s not accidental. There’s this history behind twine, which is maybe why I was so drawn to it. 

JF: Beyond twine, now that you gather these things knowing that you’re trying to build something integrated, what makes you pick up a material? Has your focus in objects changed over time?

MHW: Absolutely. I’m from Brooklyn, New York, and I ride my bike a lot… and especially in the summertime you see people throwing stuff out in the street, and what I used to pick up—before I was an “artist”—was clothes and books…

JF: And now that you’ve had your senior show, what does the future hold?

MHW: Well, I’m guess I’m going to go out and be an artist… And I’ll just keep picking things up. 

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Visual Processes

Visual Processes: Julia Schrecengost

interviewed by Bridget Conway | Visual Processes | Spring 2018

Julia Schrecengost, untitled

Bridget Conway: Do you have an artist’s statement for your senior studio or just your approach to your work in general? 

Julia Schrecengost: This year I’ve really been exploring sculpture and printmaking and the intersections between the two in my half-time show, which was an installation. There were no prints, but for my final show I’m going to incorporate a lot of monotypes using the same found materials I use in my sculpture work. [The show includes] some monotypes that have nets coming out of them and are physically embedded into the paper to reference the nets that I have been hand tying and casting in plaster that are also going be shown in the space hanging from the ceiling. I’ve just been experimenting with repetitive processes that I am instinctively drawn to, like tying knots over and over again, [and] wrapping wire around stuff. That also ties into printmaking, which is itself a very repetitive and laborious process. The themes that I’m exploring right now are all kind of related to chronic pain stemming from a lot of childhood leg injuries I had playing basketball, and processing how that’s affecting my body as I age. It’s getting more and more tangible. The pain—it’s more of a daily thing now. And so the repetitive and laborious processes for me are sometimes an act of physical endurance, especially with printmaking. It sort of feels like I’m channeling the same energy I put into sports into art making, but it has a very different product. 

BC: One thing I’ve noticed about your work is that it often does come out at the viewer. Even with some monotypes, you’ve used the materials to emboss the paper. Is there something that you’re trying to get across with having such three-dimensional and natural works?

JS: Yeah, I’m trying to communicate a sense of tension in my pieces. In the way that they’re hung, there’s a lot of empty space. I’m trying to reference the things that are going on inside of our bodies that we’re not really aware of and these random pains that seem to have no source. I’m referencing things like ligaments, tissues, veins, and bones in a very abstracted way. I’m also referencing neuro pathways of pain and how they extend beyond the body, by casting shadows on the wall or onto prints from my sculptures as a way to tie the concepts together. 

What else am I trying to do? I also work with a lot of found objects, things that when I’m at home or when I’m traveling, I find and think would be interesting to manipulate. I also just don’t really like spending money on expensive art supplies, so finding things in the trash or on the side of the road is a great way to navigate that. And also you can’t really plan on finding something like that. It’s a moment that I want to replicate, like how I’m feeling when I find it. I like to go for walks in the woods and just think a lot and collect plants or anything that catches my eye. And then when I’m making a piece I’m processing the same things as I am when I’m walking, since walking can be painful physically, and you know, if you’re going through something painful mentally too, it’s helpful to process those things by walking, and by then collecting and using those collected items to make art. 

BC: When you’re looking, whether in the woods or in the trash or something, what kinds of things are you drawn towards? And then on the basis of that, how much of your work is planned? And how much of it is improvised based on what is available to you? 

JS: When I’m looking at plants, I like to take things that are dead but used to be alive, so I’m not like ripping [them] away from the earth. I like to only take what’s offered to me. I’ll take something like a flower that was once soft but has become hard or something that is now soft but was once hard. It’s like going through this evolution that I’m continuing on in my work. When I’m on vacation with my family at the beach, I like to wander the shoreline and I’ve found a bunch of bleached, washed up nets and driftwood and sea glass. I like taking objects from places that I spend a lot of time in a way that feels significant to me, so then I can take a piece of those experiences with me. 

Talking about how much of my work is planned, pretty much none of it is. I have a lot of materials, and I think about which ones want to work together and then I sort of limit myself to those materials. And then I decide what processes to use to manipulate them. As I’m going, I don’t have any real sense of what it’s going to look like in the end. I just try for it to feel whole and harmonious, and have interesting composition and a lot of movement. 

BC: How much do you feel that you’re in conversation with your own work? What’s the balance between you and your work? If you’re making things spontaneously and responding to the process, do you see a separation between you and your work? 

JS: When I started making a lot of nets, I started by just doing the process of tying up the string and making knot after knot. It really depends on what the material wants to do in terms of how it turns out, but it’s definitely a reflection of myself because a lot of it comes from the subconscious and my own instincts. Thinking about how that relates to the sports I used to play, I did my best when I wasn’t thinking about injury and was just very fluid in movement and relying on instinct. And then when I got injured, I was always aware of the limitations of my body and was more scared to do things. Now that I’m making art, I’m trying to make art about the limitations of the body while still remaining instinctual in my making. 

BC: That makes a lot of sense. I think because, especially with the sculptures you make with nets or found wood, it feels very immersive and bodily. This net you have on the wall of your studio, for instance, feels very big and immersive. 

JS: Yeah! And that will all look very different when I’m done with it. For instance, I found this medical grade plaster bandage that I’ve been wrapping [around] the driftwood and it feels really satisfying to wrap it up, like it’s like a limb or something. Then, when it’s all white, it kind of looks like bones. And I’m going to attach those to the net via plaster. A lot of my processes recall surgery or other semi-violent actions towards the body. I have a few pieces in which I’ve threaded copper through a hole in a piece of metal or stitched into latex. I kind of view art making like the process of sustained recovery. It often makes me physically feel worse, but it makes me feel more whole and at peace with my body, emotionally and mentally. 

BC: How has your art practice changed or grown at your time at Oberlin? Is there anything that you thought that you would never appreciate that you’ve learned to appreciate or things that you thought you would always stick with that you have realized that you’ve moved on from? 

JS: At Oberlin, my practice was changed completely. Before I got to college, I was mostly making realistic paintings and I was getting really frustrated because they were taking a long time and it wasn’t fun anymore. My first semester here, I didn’t take any art classes and I was feeling really lost. And then I took a class with Nannette and Julie Christiansen, the last Materials and Methods class. It was on installation and performance, and that’s when I started getting really interested in installation and the idea that art is a lot more than just something on a canvas. And then my sophomore year, I took a screen printing class with Kristina and that just totally changed my whole perception of art making. I really wanted to master the technical aspects of it. My designs got a lot more abstract, and it opened me up to experimentation. […] 

I think that it is really important for me to be a part of an arts community and feel inspired by my peers and help them out as a way to help myself to grow. I really changed a lot since coming here, and I’m pretty happy with where I’m at right now.