Visual Processes

Visual Processes: Zenobia Marder

interviewed by Bridget Conway | Visual Processes | Fall 2017

Art by Zenobia Marder

Bridget Conway: Can you give a statement of your work—what you’re trying to achieve this semester? How has your work shifted in the past few years to get to the point it is at now?

Zenobia Marder: At this point, I’m a mixed media artist who began with a focus on film photography. My work took a radical shift after spending a semester abroad in South Africa, where my school shut down due to student protest action. I had an internship at a gallery, where I curated performance art pieces and worked with a lot of people in fashion photography in South Africa. I was also really inspired by the work I saw that was being produced in South Africa, and the way people were aesthetically presenting themselves. Then when I got back last semester, I was in a mixed media class taught by Pipo [Nguyen-Duy] and we had a project on identity. I had been really obsessed with these plastic bags that I saw a lot in South Africa. They’re called Ghana Must Go bags [seen left], and they’re basically used in communities of color all around the world, primarily in Africa and China (they can also be called China bags) as utilitarian storage. In Nigeria [during] the eighties, there was a huge forced migration of Ghanaian immigrants, and they all had to leave the country almost immediately. There’s this famous photo of them all waiting for boats at the border of Nigeria with hundreds of these plastic bags, because they were the easiest, weirdly stylish, utilitarian way to store all their belongings quickly. I’m Chinese and Jamaican of African descent, so this material tied into the project. So, that’s where my obsession with specific materials began, and I shifted toward exploring my work through mixed media, rather than just what I see in my surroundings or a narrative I could come up with through a photo.

BC: What goes through your mind when choosing the materials you use for your mixed media pieces? What are some examples of materials that mean a lot to you and your work?

ZM: I realized that crafting with specific materials based on what they mean to me, as well as the meaning embedded in the material, could transform and really elevate my work. When we had a piece on identity [in Pipo’s class], I made this cape that hung all the way from the ceiling to the floor all made out of these Ghana Must Go bags. It also had other items related to my identity, like a yam coated in resin, covered with a root that’s used to cure alcoholism in China, and stuff like that. I also started making quilts: I got really into sewing and its process. I’ve always been really interested in fashion and specifically the way Black fashion is realized in both the Americas and in Africa; so this semester, I’m working on the larger project of examining garments as an object of resistance and a kind of weapon in the diaspora. In using certain materials, I’m thinking about aesthetics as a weapon and Black aesthetics as a weapon, and Black performance of wealth—and what that means in a colonial perspective. In addition to my quilts and fabric pieces, I’m working on things like sculptures in materials that are important to me, like terra cotta [seen above]. I’m using a lot of salt—putting salt on clay, soaking objects in salt, putting salt on garments—because of its healing properties, but also because of a Jamaican saying, “sucking salt,” which functions as a way to signify pacifying oppression. I’m also using a lot of synthetic hair: One of the pieces I have up in the Fischer Gallery right now is a corset shirt made out of synthetic hair, as well as some other objects that go along with it [seen right]. Fashion, sculpture, mixed media pieces, installation—specifically the way I place objects in a room and a few found objects are really important. I’m obsessed with extracting meanings out of materials, and complicating those meanings in my work.

BC: How do you want viewers of your work to feel, especially in these large, immersive installations?

ZM: I want viewers of my work to be attracted by a certain beauty, but I also want my work to make viewers uncomfortable. Fascinated—but confused. For example, when people see this collage of cowry shells and denim [seen right] finished, it will be scary. It’s so overwhelming: the amount of shells on the piece, and the monotonous pattern, and the way it will look like a seascape in the end. This is another piece where materials are really important—the cowry shells I’m attaching to the collage were used for European traders to buy slaves in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. It was this luxury item that was used as African currency that the European traders thought was completely ridiculous, but exchanged for human lives. Cowry shells also grow on organic matter in the ocean: including dead human flesh. If the Europeans killed one of their slaves or one of their slaves died, they would cut up their limbs, toss them in the ocean, and shells would grow on the bodies, and the Europeans would buy more slaves. If I’m using these objects that are so encoded with meanings, I have to be aware that not all my viewers are going to associate these meanings with the materials; so how do I incorporate encoding or text into my work, to draw my viewers to the experience of the work I want them to have?

BC: You’ve written before about your work containing juxtapositions between organic and artificial materials. How is that present in the work you’ve been making this semester?

ZM: That was one of the things I was focused on in my earlier work, and since then I’ve really sharpened my focus and become finalized in my approach, but I am [still] interested in that. For instance, I’m [currently] making pieces out of synthetic hair. At first that hair appears to be organic, but if you go closer, you might realize it’s not, or you might think it’s totally organic and I’m making this piece out of organic material. In reality, it’s actually synthetic Kanekalon hair, which I, and many other African American, Caribbean, or African women, wear on their hair to cover up their actual hair to look nice and presentable—and still, to a certain extent, [to] have these long, straight tresses that adhere to European standards of beauty. If I’m going to use these juxtapositions between the organic and the artificial, I want it to be subtle. I’m creating these shorts, and the fringe on them is inner tubes from bikes, and the big piece of material on the side looks like skin, but is actually plastic latex. I also want to create a cape made out of the same latex, where it looks like it’s made out of flesh… Even this quilt is more performative. In making this quilt [seen above], I chose that color of the red mulch because I really loved how organic it looked, kind of like blood, but it’s actually just plastic. Then I printed the image onto plastic, which I etched onto this quilt, which is made out of leather, a more organic material. I feel like I might not always be aware [of] when I’m approaching these juxtapositions, but they still exist in the work and push my argument forward.

Visual Processes

Visual Processes: Ava Field

interviewed by Julia Friend | Visual Processes | Fall 2017

Works by Ava Field

Julia Friend: How has the work you’ve done at the Pottery Co-Op changed over your four years?

Ava Field: When I was a freshman, I was really just learning how to throw. […] Coming here and practicing everyday was so important. I’m the Exco instructor for the beginning class, and that’s one of the things I tell them all the time is that you have to practice. A lot of what I do now is just making functional things like bowls, cups, mugs… but I’m trying to expand and make more sculptural things.

JF: How do you think about functionality as you’re making your pieces?

AF: That’s a big thing in ceramics in general. I think there’s a certain level of craft [to] making a lot of the same functional piece, reproducing the same shape as a set or as something someone can use… But then it’s really interesting when you can alter that and get more of an art form that you just have to look at.

JF: What form are your more sculptural pieces taking?

AF: I don’t really know yet. Here… this is my cactus.

JF: I was admiring it on the shelf.

AF: I was passing a garden, and I saw some cactuses, and I thought they looked really interesting, and I liked their organic shapes so I wanted to try and make one. And there’s also cactuses by the facilities building—I walk past them every time I come here, and I just want to make cactuses! This is my second attempt. My first attempt—well, it’s a sad story. All this stuff over here is raku. So, raku is a special form of pottery firing where you have a strong clay body—meaning the piece you fire can withstand rapid temp changes—so the whole process is that you take your pot that you have glazed and fire it until its gets to temperature, and you transfer it to a bin that won’t melt and will close tightly, and you fill it with combustible things—and it gets really smokey, and when it’s done, everywhere that didn’t have glaze on it turns matte, deep black. The glazes can come out really shiny. The sad thing about these is that one of our co-opers accidentally fired them in the [normal] kiln. So that’s why [this attempt] looks weird.

JF: It’s a process where you don’t know what you’re going to get—there’s some surprise to it.

AF: Yeah.

JF: This [pottery] is very interesting to me as a painter because I put so much time into one [piece]. So what it’s like to make the same form over and over? Does it change over time?

AF: It’s probably one of the harder things—to try to make something the same over and over. I think it’s really fun, and it’s really hard [because] you sit down and you have all these pieces of clay [that you’re trying to make into] the same thing. And at some point you don’t really think about it anymore, and it’s okay if every one is a little different; it’s nice for each one to [be unique]. Because I can’t make everything perfect. […] I just came in with the same idea for all of them; They all have these ridges, and they all have a dimple, but they’re all kind of different heights and widths. Something that is really important that I talk to my students about—because when you’re in a beginning pottery class, I think the main thing you want to be making is something you can use. So, when I talk to them about mugs, I ask them what they really want it to feel like in your hand. Because that literally makes all of the difference. When you make something, and it’s finally done, and you look at it, and you’re like, Oh wow, beautiful, I love it, and then you pick it up, and it doesn’t feel right in your hand… it’s so shitty. Because then you don’t like it!

JF: So it’s very sensory, too.

AF: Yeah, it is. I mean, especially when you’re making mugs because you have the handle. I mean you want to figure out what’s the best way to make this handle—how do I want my hand to fit in this cup?

JF: You’re also interested in photography. Are you able to find ways to intersect that and pottery?

AF: There’s this place called Great Gull island, and it’s an island that the [American] Museum of Natural History [in New York] owns. I’ve worked there for two summers in a row. It’s like an ecological reserve for these birds… It was the craziest experience of my life. On the island there were all these blinds, and for some reason [I] was really interested in them…They have these blinds for watching birds and looking out and hiding so the birds can go about their business without being threatened by you, and I was really interested in that shape [of the blinds.] So the following summer, I was doing raku, and I made these [ceramic versions.]. But there’s also this method I’ve really been meaning to try—cyanotypes, which [uses] this photosensitive chemical that you paint onto paper or fabric and expose it to the sun. The sunlight would basically make a photo of my negative on the cyanotype paper and you wash it away with water and then it comes out blue. You can do that on pottery. It’s something that I really wanna figure out… It’s gonna happen.

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Visual Processes

Visual Processes: Camille Klein

interviewed by Julia Friend | Visual Processes | Fall 2017

Works by Camille Klein

Julia Friend: So what have you been working on?

Camille Klein: Right now, I’ve been working on painting a lot as a conscious move into that medium. I haven’t done a lot of painting in the past, but these two pieces are definitely me getting into the headspace of using paint, whereas normally, I use a lot of different materials.

JF: [Your past work is] very three-dimensional, so why the move towards two-dimensional?

CK: I don’t know—these two, I like them lying next to the other and viewed as a textile piece—I have ideas that aren’t just flat. This one [car] is actually a sculpture—it has this rounded belly here… So it’s two-sided, and I want it to stand as a show piece on the ground rather than a wall so it can be [seen in] 360 [degrees]. So this is really more of a sculpture. It’s filled with salt, actually. I don’t know how to predict this, but it’s starting to oxidize.

JF: How did you come up with that?

CK: Well, I made the canvas first, and it was honestly just because I had too much canvas… so it doubled over [and I thought] well, I’ll just make a bag. And then I was interested in experimenting with the bag thing, and I didn’t know whether to fill it first, and then have the paint be in conversation with the texture, or add texture to this more established narrative going on. Which is what I preferred. So as I was painting it, I liked the idea of salt. It has campy connotations, like salting—like salting the road. But also salt is a preservative, which I was interested in when thinking about trying to preserve that object.

JF: So it has a lot of valences to it. How does that fit into your other painting or what else you’re working on?

CK: The approach is the same in its surface quality and cartoony aspects. That I do more in sketchbooks—I haven’t actually painted with such recognizable symbols [before]. They’re connected because I’m doing this exploration through shapes—that’s kind of the way my practice works: starting from one shape, and building that outward, and once I have this one idea, so many more come. […] But all these things realize ideas of protection, and weaponry, and this idea of time which I’ve been thinking about a lot more lately.

JF: You’ve made comments about [producing work that is more engaged with material than personal identity.] What does this mean for you when you’re creating?

CK: That’s something that’s been shifting back and forth. But definitely when I first started making art in high school, I [created] from a very personal place, and it was sort of like a diary process—where I was exploring, but it always had to come back to me and trying to represent an experience of mine. Then that became really hard, and I also thought that it [was] pretty stupid. I started thinking more about material—and like, everyone is interested in material so that’s not a new thing. But it just kind of freed me to think about what was happening in this blank territory where I’m just using my own body and the things I have at hand to build a narrative separate from myself. That helped a lot, and then when I have been interested in using more personal meanings or symbols, I’m weaving that into a general approach.

JF: So these are very narrative pieces, too?

CK: Yeah. I think they’re kind of soupy though. […] It sucks because I have a clipboard, and I’m like, hiding it and watching people try to figure it out, and I don’t want to do that. But I also do like having a secret, and it’s interesting for me to have the audience make their own interpretation. But I am interested in merging those two more. I think that one of my issues right now is trying to be less esoteric. There’s a value in creating all these [unsolved meanings] but then you get buried too deep. […] It’s a process of keeping my clipboard, but opening it a little bit. And that’s in form, too—I’m trying to create more open forms, and have more trailing ideas.

JF: Trailing ideas?

CK: Yeah—maybe not having a solution, not necessarily striving for a finished body of work. But I do think of these things as from collections; they definitely are made with the other one in mind. A year ago, I started a lot with notions of protection and the body as an agent of the world, and how to arm yourself against whatever [is] external. So that’s when I got into weapon imagery, and I also got into the literal idea of covering, covering materials in other materials, and I made a sleeping bag and other tents—forms of protection. Then that moved into spaces with protection, and last semester i talked about enclosed space a lot—not necessarily in-body space, but physical space. And then, that was really proven with a cross symbol, definitely as an origin of foundation; it became what everything was built upon. And then the cross symbol mutates into this axis on a circle, and then I got into spirals this summer, and so that shape took a spiral shape. Now I’m interested in time, and armor and… it all comes together.

JF: Sounds very fluid.

CK: Yeah. It’s definitely fluid, but it’s also aggravating that […] I can’t capture these feelings necessarily [because] they’re relying on the abstract.

JF: [With all of these different elements], do you have a sense of how they’re pieced together?

CK: That’s the most intuitive part for me I’d say. That’s like… the best part.