Little Ghosts of Alchemy and Magic: A Conversation with Emily Nachison

January 21, 2015 · Print This Article

Crystalline Conversion, 2013

Crystalline Conversion, 2013

As a kid, I felt betrayed by the cheery optimism peddled by Disney. My sisters and I were raised on the stories of Hans Christian Anderson, gleaning magic from the gloom and gore of The Little Match Girl, The Red Shoes, and The Little Mermaid. When Ariel wasn’t turned into sea foam at the end of the 1989 animation, I thought, (in 8-year old terms): What the fuck was that?! I found the idea of pitting one’s desire against excruciating pain thrilling and, indeed, necessary for any sort of moral to resonate. After visualizing little red shoes dancing away on severed legs, anything G-rated will inevitably disappoint.

I never asked during the course of our interview, but I’m guessing that Portland-based artist Emily Nachison had a similar childhood experience. In a recent artist talk, she cited a German folktale, The Seven Ravens, a story about a girl who frees her seven brothers from imprisonment in a glass mountain by cutting off one of her fingers to use the bone as a key. Nachison was drawn to this particular tale, firstly, for its depiction of glass, (her media of choice), as a simultaneously ethereal and earthly substance that combines the allure of a crystalline surface with the weight of a tomb. Secondly, she was inspired by the relationship between body and natural world. Like the girl’s finger, much of Nachison’s work hints at the possibility of portals—keys—leading to realms a bit more magical than the world we currently understand to exist.

Though curious about fairy rings and New Age pseudo-spirituality, Nachison is equally versed in Victorian approaches to nature in decorative arts. Her installations are clean yet luminous, featuring pieces created from kiln-formed glass combined with few elemental materials such as leather, horsehair, and stainless steel. Her work can suggest a tangled wildness—a ghostly apparition of nature rendered in delicate glass. Equally, it can bring to mind an alchemical process developed in a laboratory and exhibited in a museum of natural history. Or, Nachison can draw from craft-based traditions of weaving and metallurgy, creating objects that are best understood when worn on the body or held in hand.

Regardless of scale, Nachison’s process is ultimately the subject at hand. Glass making is at once highly scientific and a bit mysterious. To create her forms, the artist casts specimens collected in nature—mushrooms, crystals, and branches—manipulating the molds by hand to construct an uncanny landscape, increment by increment. Then, she meticulously measures her silica mixture, pouring it into the molds to be fired. The alchemy behind glass production—transforming sand into something of profound value—illustrates humanity’s capacity to master materiality, creating things that are functional and beautiful from raw earth. In the midst of all her scientific calculations, Nachison still manages to question our understanding of the world and how we quantify its forces. Alluding to the history of scientific advancement, her work embraces the unknown, suggesting there are always multiple truths—it’s up to us to remove the finger and surrender to the magic.

I spoke to Emily Nachison last summer in her studio.

Deliquesce (2012)

Deliquesce (2013)

Sarah Margolis-Pineo: Has the natural world always played a significant role in your life, and subsequently, in your work? How has your relationship with the natural world changed since relocating from Southern California to the Pacific Northwest, (by way of Baltimore, San Francisco and Detroit)?

Emily Nachison: It’s always been a part of my life, but since moving to Oregon, spending time outdoors has become central to my practice. As a child, I liked to sit and count things in the backyard, and then in undergrad and graduate school, I became interested in folklore and Victorian traditions of categorizing and cultivating nature. I like to consider the ways we organize and think about nature. What does it mean to create a garden? What does it mean to impose order on the natural world? My work started as being about nature and our relationship with the outdoors, but slowly, it’s become more about the ways we quantify it—trying to understand and create meaning from every encounter. Since moving to Oregon, my inquiry became more about my own experiences–about foraging and gathering.

I grew up in Southern California in a pretty New Age environment, and that colored my perspective for a very long time. I’m very interested in science and how we understand the world, but I’m also very interested in the desire to find some sort of magic in nature—even if it doesn’t exist. For me, making work is a way of having another headspace to go into. I go outdoors to seek inspiration, and in the studio, I use that experience to wander in alternative space. This is where nature and magic come together, and that combination of forces is revealed in my work.

Portal (2012)

Portal (2012)

SMP: Besides the outdoors, where else do you go for inspiration?

EN: I cite folktales, certainly. The mushroom cycles, Portal (2012) for example, references these portals to other realms called Fairy Rings that are found in folktales. The mushroom cycles in my work are based on an actual type of mushroom called an ink cap. As they die, they release spores and melt into a puddle of ink. Reading about the ink cap mushroom began my interest in transition cycles, and I started exploring the transmutation of mass. From there, I began thinking about concepts around alchemy—transforming one material into another, as well as physics and the conservation of mass.

From the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library (photo: Emily Nachison)

From the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library (photo: Emily Nachison)

EN: Doing any sort of research about alchemy on the Internet usually makes me feel like I’m reading Harry Potter fan fiction. It was seeking out a more credible source that led me to the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University. The Beinecke houses a collection of alchemical manuscripts from the 14th to the 17th century. The Beinecke alchemical manuscript collection was founded by Mary Conover Mellon, a follower of Carl Jung who introduced his theories to the U.S. She went around buying manuscripts that he had used for his research into symbols and archetypes that led to his theories of the collective unconscious. I received a research grant to travel there, and I met with curator Kathryn James, who shared incredible works with me including the Voynich manuscript, which has its own cult following. The Voynich is from the 14th century and has all these incredible drawings of plants on vellum. At the time, these plants hadn’t been cataloged or studied to the extent that we know them today, and I found it fascinating that people were drawn to render them in such detail. Plants have a certain magic, and that was made clear looking through the manuscript.

Voynich manuscript (photo: Emily Nachison)

Voynich manuscript (photo: Emily Nachison)

SMP: So much of the evolution of human knowledge really demonstrates how little we do know about the world. Opening up the potential for magic is not only exciting, but it seems a necessary counterpoint to scientific understanding.

EN: People keep coming back to it! We accept that it doesn’t exist, yet it’s a constant theme within every cultural zeitgeist.

SMP: Can we talk about your use of glass? What drew you to it as a material coming from fiber and soft sculpture?

EN: In grad school, I had my world blown apart by a visiting critic who told me that all of my exploration into Carl Jung, the collective unconscious, etc., was all very New Age. I had no idea! At the time I was totally distraught, but it forced me to turn a corner. I began reading about the Victorian Age and the idea of lamenting the loss of nature. The Victorians created fake ruins with fabricated signs of age to solicit a sense nostalgia thus turning the natural world into something decorative. Glass became very popular during that time. It became more affordable. Paxton’s Crystal Palace was opened. Due to my interest in this time period, I became interested in using glass as a material. I wasn’t able to begin working with glass until I came to Oregon, where I first had access to resources and expertise in kiln-formed glass thanks to Bullseye Projects, an affiliate of Bullseye Glass Company.

The Realm of Quantifiable Truths installed at Bullseye Glass Gallery (2014)

Realm of Quantifiable Truths installed at Bullseye Gallery, Portland (2014)

EN: In my work I’m interested in transformation and how culture shapes our relationship with nature. Glass goes through an amazing chemical transformation when it is created and also has a physical preciousness and a culturally derived value. I’m interested in playing with these aspects of the material. Additionally, glass, for me, has a memorial tone. By casting natural objects, stones, plants, shells, etc., into glass, I transform them into relics. I give material form to something ethereal. Each piece is like a ghost.

SMP: The way you piece elements together to create a whole strikes me as possibly having roots in fiber.

EN: The unification of individual units was definitely part of my fiber education. My first forays into installation as a student consisted of elements, made in the studio, that were then joined in the gallery space. My work in in grad school and directly after moved away from this practice as I developed monumental scaled works where the elements were indistinguishable from the whole. Working in glass, however, brought this way of working back since scale is limited by the size of the kiln. One could argue that this practice is as rooted in glass—stained glass, mosaic, murrine, as much as it has roots in fiber.

Counting Cord (2014)

Counting Cord (2014)

SMP: You mentioned that the way you create these forms is very intuitive and, looking at them, I can certainly see more formal sculptural representation infused with the mystical—a combination of material and immaterial. Is it possible to describe how the forms come to be?

EN: The process of casting glass is not an intuitive process—it’s very much about applying correct calculations to produce a specific outcome. One of my favorite steps in glass casting is doing the weight calculations where you fill the cavity of your mold with water, measure the correct amount of water, and then you do a little equation to figure out how much glass that equals before measuring and pouring the glass into the mold to be fired. I like how working with glass forces me to slow down, think, and count. Before I was making very intuitive, somewhat aggressive work. This is a whole different pace.

Nachison in her studio (photo: Half-Cut Tea)

Nachison in her studio (photo: Half-Cut Tea)

Nachison’s process is described in a short video by Half-Cut Tea.

EN: It’s through the process of creating and casting the wax forms that the intuitive part comes back in. What I do first is create a silicone mold of a natural object and then cast it in wax, I then spend time combining it with other cast wax forms, letting the individual pieces fall away through heating and reforming it. It’s easy to get lost in that.

SMP: There is so much mystery surrounding glass production still. Even in the Pacific Northwest, home of the studio glass movement, where glass production is perhaps more accessible than most places, there is a high-level of skill and access to resources that keeps the craft very shrouded and exclusive.

EN: Because of that, you don’t see glass appear in sculpture that often. When it does appear, it feels really rarified and special. I’ve always wanted to create work that feels like a relic—something captured in time, and glass works well for me in that respect.

Metonic Transfiguration (2014)

Metonic Transfiguration, detail (2014)

SMP: I’d like to discuss the scale of your work. Some pieces have a very Craft-ness to them in that you can imagine the weight of them in hand or the feel of them being worn, whereas others definitely draw from the experience of a Fine Art sculptural installation. Is presenting these two shifts in the embodied relationship with the work crucial for you?

EN: My recent solo exhibition, The Realm of Quantifiable Truths (Bullseye Gallery, Portland, OR, 2014), was the first time I have used such a dramatic scale shift, but in all of my work I want the viewer to become aware of their body as they move through the space and also how they would relate bodily to each work. Combining these two types of relationships in one exhibition heightens the viewers’ awareness.

In addition to embodied installations, which make us conscious of space, I included works that referenced the human skeleton. I created the segmented branches to reference human finger bones. I was thinking about the idea of the finger as a form of measurement—using the human hand as a proto-ruler. The necklace-like pieces definitely speak to really heavy, unwieldy jewelry, but I also intended for the pieces to look like vertebrae. All together, the exhibition resembled a dismembered body that was been put back together again.

Divination Rods (2014)

Divination Rods (2014)

SMP: Can you imagine your work existing in a public venue besides a gallery?

EN: I’m not interested in moving existing works into non-gallery spaces, but I am interested in responding to and making work for specific venues. I am currently working on an installation for a three hundred year old barn in northern Scotland. Working in this entirely different space and responding to the environment and folklore of the area is a fantastic challenge. The installation will open in the summer of 2016.

I would love to work inside a greenhouse. In particular, the large glass and steel structures that were popular during the Victorian period. These spaces embody many of the ideas that ideas that I explore in my work. Certainly working in a space like this would impact the form and conceptual direction of my work. I have been wanting to make work related to evaporation, but it makes little sense to pursue this in a gallery. A glass house, however, might be the ideal place.


Table of Material Contents (2014)

Table of Material Contents (2014)

Emily Nachison, born in San Diego, California, received a BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2006 and a MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art in 2010. Nachison lives and works in Portland, Oregon and is currently the Fiber Department Chair and a Visiting Assistant Professor at the Oregon College of Art and Craft.

Currently, Nachison’s work is featured in the exhibition, Dark Ecologies, on view at Bullseye Gallery through March 28.

All photography by Dan Kvitka unless credited otherwise.


Working on Non-Work: A Conversation with Anna Gray and Ryan Wilson Paulsen

November 27, 2013 · Print This Article

CampCARPA, Joshua Tree, October 2013

CampCARPA, Joshua Tree, October 2013

I first met Anna Gray + Ryan Wilson Paulsen as they were carting a tank of helium into the desert. The Portland-based collaborative had been deployed to Camp CARPA by The Craft Advanced Research Projects Agency to distribute airborne leaflet propaganda on the unsuspecting town on Joshua Tree, CA. Their project, Instead of Pleading Up: Improvised Airdrops and the Seizure of the Vertical, employed gratuitous slingshots and cheerful party balloons as vehicles to distribute their collateral. Historically used to threaten, bribe, and confuse enemy lines, Anna + Ryan’s dissemination drew from the festive, confetti-like tactics used by the military in order to subvert and counter the message. Instead of Pleading Up opened up vertical airspace for democratic participation both literally and conceptually. The project reflected on past (and present) histories and dominant ideologies while simultaneously building a counter-narrative that was produced by the structures of power—activating agency from within—opposed to creating a position from the ineffectual site of binary opposition.

Much of Anna + Ryan’s artistic practice intervenes within the language of prevailing systems in order re-imagine them otherwise. Often leveraging the visual and conceptual language of play, their work is cheeky and unassuming, drawing you in with a collective laugh, and retaining your attention with its poignant bite. Targeting systems of labor and production, artistic value, and academia, their work unpacks the undeniable shittiness of the current moment with a holistic approach to art making and life building that resonates with Julia Bryan-Wilson’s notion of occupational realism, defined as the collapse of waged labor and art to give rise to art practices that raise “questions about the potential strategic or operational value of precarity: its capacity to redefine social relations, aesthetic and affective production, and class structures.”

Anna + Ryan function as a truly united collaborative. Their work, life, and art are bound together by their shared home/studio, adjunct teaching gig, and three-year-old son, Calder, and their public identity is often presented as a single artist under the combined name Ryanna. This all-encompassing integration means that Anna + Ryan’s practice is inherently political. As participants within dominant systems, their activities both explicitly creative as well as mundane are constant interrogation of larger structures of knowledge and economy. Whether producing text or performance, playing pirate or pilot, Anna + Ryan, (often joined by Calder), explore the potential within ways of working, knowing, and living through active participation. Even within the very regimented space of the gallery, the collective is able to playfully package antagonism within the commercially viable object. Much like the stones wrapped in chevron friendship bracelets that they produce, Anna + Ryan skirt what could be viewed as gestures of impertinent rejection under the guise of revealing the potential within the familiar to shift one’s purview to imaginative alternatives.

I spoke with Anna + Ryan over coffee in a cavernous academic building about their most recent exhibition, A Series of Rectangles, on view at PDX Contemporary Art through November 30, 2013.


Sarah Margolis-Pineo: How did you come to make and co-produce together?

Anna Gray: We met in 2005 and we started helping each other make projects, and at some point probably around 2008, we realized that we were involved to such a degree in each other’s projects that it didn’t make any sense to continue differentiating who did what work. At that point, we decided to put all of our projects under our combined names. Now, we’re truly overlapped in terms of our teaching, our art-making, and our personal life, so there are times where we have to ask: where does our work start and family life end? Sometimes it’s a hard division, and other times, it’s not, and we want it to be.

Ryan Wilson Paulsen: Our working practices changed dramatically when we had [our son] Calder. It ended our studiomate-ness. Now we delegate the physical in-studio tasks, which changed our process of because we’re no longer as able to make decisions during the execution of a piece as easily—we’re often not producing the material work together, but that’s more true to conceptual art, I guess.

SMP: What is productive about combining this space of art—or world making—with home making?

AG: Homemaking is world-making. We devise most everything we do artistically through conversation and so doing that while all three of us are in the same space—negotiating emptying the dishwasher, pretending we’re pirates, and thinking about how to make some sort of visual work engaging labor and politics—is a particular method that can be really dynamic. I don’t know that it is a productive way of working necessarily, but we feel like there is entirely too much emphasis on production these days anyway.

RWP: For me, the chaos is invigorating, but it can also lead to frustration very quickly.

Object Lesson: Means Without End by Giorgio Agamben, 2013

Object Lesson: Means Without End by Giorgio Agamben, 2013

SMP: Your most recent exhibition, A Series of Rectangles, features work produced during a residency at the Bemis. Going into the residency, did you have a particular project in mind? How did that location inform the work that was produced there?

RWP: We wanted to continue the Object Indexes, which involve taking a text, inventorying and collecting the material objects that are mentioned, and arranging them so we can make a photograph. We knew we were going to do that going in, but we also knew that we didn’t want to go in knowing much else.

AG: I think it was important to us to be able to use the time to work on things that didn’t have a place yet. There was an openness to the experience of not making things on demand, for a particular exhibition or deadline. There was a similar openness in our experience of the landscape of Omaha that Ryan especially fell in love with. The landscape is really different than Portland, which we feel is becoming more and more over-designed architecturally and a bit claustrophobic in terms of the high level of aesthetic consideration of everything. There was a feeling of space in Omaha; firstly because we didn’t know the city, but also because there were a lot more abandoned houses and empty lots within the city, that felt full of possibility. I think that’s why we were attracted to making work with bricks and rubble—these things that are found in those places became markers of a certain destructive potential.

RWP: Omaha’s sort of like Swiss cheese and Portland is like a block of cheese. There’s no contested area here—everything is regimented and owned and marked. In Omaha, there are these neighborhoods and alleyways that were like no-mans-land. It felt more expansive. There was more potential for things to happen and for things to happen in secret.

Verb XII, 2013 (right)

Verb XII, 2013 (right)

SMP: I read this idea of potentiality in the series of cairns, Verb I – Verb XVIII. Even their titles tie them to this sense of activation. Looking at the bricks though, I didn’t intuit any real violence in the installation—disgruntlement, maybe—but I’m curious where the aggression comes in for you?

AG: The brick works, [Adjunct and Double Negative], as they are installed maybe seem more fixed, like they are saying rather than suggesting. But, we’ve thought about the Adjunct bricks functioning in accordance with a number of different motions or uses. We’ve thought about them being useful as doorstops—something to remind you whose keeping the doors open at the university. But they could also be commemorative paving stones; we could organize a brick-buy to fund raise for adjunct wage increases and benefits. We could also build our own unaccredited institution with them, or throw them through the windows of the old institution because it’s pretty fucked right now.

Double Negative, 2013

Double Negative, 2013

RWP: They could have suggested that more if they had been installed differently, but it was our decision to install them as they are—partly for visual cleanliness—but it was nice to invoke both the building up and the falling down of the institution of education by making a sort of crumbling corner. The way that they ‘re installed also makes their proportions a bit difficult to read, but it was important to us they represented the ratio of adjuncts to full-time faculty in the university system nationally, so 75% of the bricks there are inscribed ADJUNCT while the other 25% are blank.

AG: I think the aggression we feel about our positions as teachers is a complicated one because crossing through our relation with the bureaucratic education system and the aggression we feel there, is the care for students and enthusiasm for the ways that art could have a potential to make something different happen within the space of a classroom.

Adjunct, 2013

Adjunct, 2013

SMP: I didn’t realize the cataloging series was something ongoing. When did that body of work start?

AG: It started from making various text-based indexes for the same text as a way to create many ways of looking at the same thing: like an index of all the metaphors, all the colors, all the numbers etc.

RWP: It was with the color index that we began overlaying actual color fields over the text to create a visual graphic rather than a secondary text, and from there we moved into the objects.

AG: Looking at the objects authors use was particularly interesting in terms of reading philosophy. Scavenging for philosophical object lessons became really interesting to us because of the difficulty of reading that kind of material—there’s a certain level of abstraction. I would feel myself really grasping for those material examples to try and understand, and sometimes they wouldn’t be really actually be that palpable—they’re imagined or metaphorical things, and that’s where the interest in doing the object indexes and also the drawings emerged.

Installation view, courtesy of PDX Contemporary Art

Installation view, courtesy of PDX Contemporary Art

SMP: How do the photos and drawings relate?

AG: We were noticing that the speculative object examples were more interesting and evocative. For example, a knot of two concepts or something is more interesting than a knot of rope. It seemed interesting to focus on trying to render those things—literalizing them. It’s also kind of jokey. Peter Kropotkin wrote about the old institutions falling under the proletarian axe, and we got this image in our head of an axe branded proletarian on the handle. That experience told me something about the distance between our time and Kropotkin’s time. What arises in the public imagination is wildly different. The old institution of capitalism branded the axe that will be its own destruction? I don’t know, literalization always kind of makes a circle.

Under the Proletarian Axe, 2013

Under the Proletarian Axe, 2013

SMP: How did you come to the work of Simone Weil, whose pervasive reputation is as a complete crazy person?

AG: She was so frequently quoted by other writers we were reading and I was curious about her influence on other thinkers. Maybe she seems crazy cause she just hasn’t been historicized and sanitized the way that so many other writers have. She did die really young, and everything she wrote seems very forceful and maybe extreme, but I like that her writing seems of a fierce human-ness. It’s idiosyncratic and contradictory too.

RWP: We love contradiction and paradox. Giorgio Agamben and other theorists who we really love tend to define things from their paradox—everything comes down to it. And there’s another piece in the middle [of the gallery] that’s a loose sculpture with branches and an open paper book. Within the piece is the sentence “The line that runs through the middle of each of us is beginning to itch,” which is a note about the internalization of power and oppression: There’s no exploiter and exploited, oppressor and oppressed anymore—there are no clear divisions because they’re both contained within us. We are our own worker and our own managers, especially as artists.

AG: Simone Weil has that great line about contradiction that when a contradiction is impossible to resolve except by a lie, then you know it’s really a door.

Object Lesson: Void and Compensation by Simone Weil, 2013

Object Lesson: Void and Compensation by Simone Weil, 2013

SMP: Why take your process of translation as far as you do: text, to concept, to object, to image? What does the image making do for the work that is different from presenting an assemblage of the objects themselves?

AG: By photographing them we’re putting the objects in relative scale to each other within the space of a picture plane, which is relative to the space of the page. There’s a looseness to the acquisition process of the objects, sometimes they might be a bit inaccurate to the texts, but they are accurate to our reading, so putting them in an image keeps them within the symbolic or speculative realm versus being isolated and presented in their singularity and specificity as artifacts. Plus I think there is something interesting with the repetition of certain objects across different indexes of different texts. They reveal certain common metaphors, or objects that have a charge or convenience for particular authors: knots, stamps, screens, and bread for instance.

RWP: When we make an object, we’re trying to emphasize the use value of the thing—the ways it could be performed—but when we make an image, we’re encouraging its contemplative value over its use value.

Object Lesson: The Needs of the Soul by Simone Weil, 2013

Object Lesson: The Needs of the Soul by Simone Weil, 2013

SMP: Has this interest in cataloging and creating systems been something resonant throughout your practice?

AG: Definitely. Part of that is an interest in understanding how knowledge is organized and how those systems can tell you something about power and perception and tools during different times. I think we’re interested more and more, along with everyone else, in how power obscures and encloses certain kinds of knowledge and information.

SMP: You also tend to serialize. What is your motivation to work in series?

AG: Maybe it’s a defense mechanism. You can get away with more if you are presenting 100 of something than if you are presenting 3 of something. But it kind of goes back to this thing of play. If you allow yourself the number 100 and make as many variations as you can within that set, you’ve given yourself a useful bounded arena where you can experiment and stretch or break the rules of the original form or concept. For us, the true play happens within a space that is somewhat systematized, or organized by a given form but then we get to warp the system, interrupt it or evolve it through use.

RWP: In some ways, our tendency to serialize is lamely idiosyncratic and not worth talking about. We’re fidget-ers and totally anxious and creating multiples is a way to give us something to do outside of the conceptual work.

AG: Yeah, maybe…Everywhere Ryan went for the last three months he was knotting cotton for the friendship bracelets.

RWP: Well, if I wasn’t doing that I’d be chain smoking.

Verb XVII, 2013

Verb XVII, 2013

SMP: I think there are many makers out there who can relate there, and it is interesting this idea of balancing out the rigor of your conceptual work with the ritualized monotony of creating craft-based objects. Has craft and this particular way of making been something consistently present in your work?

AG: It’s always been there, but at the same time, half of us is always talking about how we wouldn’t make the work if we didn’t have to—if we could get someone else to do it. But it’s really important to me, because doing the teaching and the conceptual/pragmatic side of the work we do at the same time is really exhausting. It’s really nice to have a craft-based alteration from that kind of thinking and planning—craft-based in that you’re following a set of steps to produce an expected product, which gives you an opportunity to think and make and move at the same time.

RWP: Things made by hand are cool right now because we largely don’t have them.  People can connect with something made by hand precisely because they notice its absence in their day-to-day life.

SMP: We’re still in this place culturally though being so distanced from systems of production that the unassuming gallery go-er wouldn’t necessarily equate the traditional chevron and rainbow-patterned friendship bracelet with something handmade.

RWP: But in that case, it doesn’t really matter because so many of us have the associations of what friendship bracelets signify from grade school and summer camp—we all understand that it’s something we make, and not something we keep but give away. The idea to make them for this project came out of another text, Beyond Predicates, which talks about the revolutionary cells of today. We no longer have the party, the union, or the guerrilla army, we have the clique and the gang, which are based on friendship and have the potential to produce mass change. We started thinking about that—this very insurrectional text—and about weaponizing friendship in that way. Or friendship-izing weapons. A friendship is a certain formulation where like-mindedness is not a precondition for friendships. My friendships are my most diverse body of relationships.

We Already Quit, 2013 (left), Working on non-work, 2013 (right)

We Already Quit, 2013 (left), Working on non-work, 2013 (right)

SMP: I know that your work tends to be heavily text-based and cheeky, but the bricks and the towel piece, We Already Quit, don’t have a lot of subtlety to them.

AG: Maybe they are less subtle in relation to each other. We Already Quit has multiple meanings, but the piece gets a lot more specified in the context it’s in right now, and with our two names on the wall opposite. We’re saying we already quit for a lot of reasons. One idea we had about that statement was about the inability to stop participating. You can’t really quit working, there are really no ways of opting out, and fewer ways of choosing alternatives within the expansive network of global capitalism because we are all so dependent on the system that is exploiting us. So you can have quit already, but you’ll still be here participating and maybe even looking professional while you do it.

And the systems and ethics around work, especially in this country, are really detrimental and limiting. We titled that banner Working Towards Non-Work, as we are trying to find a vocabulary for working and artistic activity that isn’t about productive ends, but about positively reproductive ones. There’s a lot expected of artists at this point in terms of levels of productivity in academia, in shaping the quirk and brand of a city, in participating nationally or internationally as a creative contributor, and in maintaining an exhibition and/or studio practice. How are other artists managing this workload, which by its very design seems to prevent the best work from being made?

RWP: Alternatively, that statement could be about the tendency to treat struggle as something one tries for awhile along with youthful idealism but then gives up for a form of rationality later in life. Like: “yeah…we used to use cloth diapers, but it was just too much so we quit and disposables are so much easier.” Power makes certain things easier for a reason.

Can These Antiques Ever Prove Dangerous Again?, 2012

Can These Antiques Ever Prove Dangerous Again?, 2012

SMP: I’m wondering if you can unpack your project statement for this exhibition: nothing can be what it is anymore.

RWP: First of all, that came together very quickly. It was one of those cases where we were approached about the show and they needed the title and statement in a couple days. It can be as simple as it sounds: Everything has implications that transform it, and nothing can be what it once was or what it seems.

AG: We also thought about it in terms of societal norms. We make norms and we operate with norms as a form of language and judgment and coping and ease. But it’s important to be constantly suspending those norms in order to question them, reassert them in a more egalitarian or positive way, or to do away with them all together. I think it really has been since Calder was born that we both paused and were like: do we really want to accept these forms of normal? It suddenly was urgent to re-articulate what we hoped and envisioned for the world our kid and kid’s kids might inhabit, and the first step is in understanding how to analyze the world we are currently living in.

That’s somewhat selfish and personal, but our lives are not just our lives anymore, and having Calder has made more sensible the extension of my life by years, because I’m now bodily connected to subsequent generations and it is up to me to pass on a particular representation of the possibilities and actualities of the world.


SMP: There are moments in cultural history where the trueness of reality can be stripped away and platforms like imagination and fiction become all the more poignant as venues to open up potential for what can be otherwise. For me, nothing can be what it is anymore, invokes the idea of a clean slate, and I’m wondering if you can speak to how you leverage imagination and fiction within an art making practice that is simultaneously very critical?

RWP: We talk about imagination in contrast to creativity a lot—creativity being tied to production and imagination not necessarily so. This is something that’s important to us and we’re still trying to think about. When imaginative work is not tied to any type of production there’s a way that we’re able to let ourselves improvise that’s not predicated on some type of rational logic.  In the absence of this rational logic–which we see as a justification system developed alongside an exploitative economic structure—there is the chance that we might make astounding intellectual leaps.

AG: The other thing about making the distinction between those two terms is that creativity is a word that’s been highly corrupted and used interchangeably with words like innovation, or alongside words like entrepreneurship, which are very much in the service of profit. And this is where ideas like anti-work and the suspension of productive ends becomes really important. And to be perfectly frank, I don’t feel like I’m very good at the work of imagining. Ryan has a better imagination than I do in so many ways, and I think that there’s an interest in making work around those notions because I feel particularly deficient. I watch our son too and wonder: how does he do it?

SMP: Does humor come into most of what you do and how are you using it?

RWP: As a coping mechanism.

AG: Desperation…or as a way to make things easier for a viewer, or sometimes not intentionally. Most of the drawings are literalist jokes, but they weren’t all intended as such—it’s just an inclination that we have. But there’s also maybe humor or at least frivolity in, for example, our use of bright party balloons to drop militarized leaflets versus using a weather balloon or something more scientific, because there’s something catching at a first glance.

RWP: The balloons say: this artwork wants to have fun with me, so I’ll take a second look at it. Also, the Adjunct bricks are intended to be funny, and when you make a joke with an artwork and the viewer gets it, there’s a base of camaraderie because you’ve shared something—this inside joke.

Don't Worry, We'll Fix It, 2011

Don’t Worry, We’ll Fix It, 2011

SMP: What are your thoughts on social practice, specifically, how it’s been canonized and how your work is often categorized as such?

AG: I have a slight revulsion to the term because it seemed to originate as if it didn’t have a history or precedence, and because it seems like a weird redundancy or something.

RWP: I’m not interested in participating in the fixing of subjects…But I think Claire Bishop sort of had it right when she said that if you’re going to engage in this type of practice you’re going to be looked at aesthetically as well as socially, so you have to deal with that.

AG: Basically, what she’s calling for is an evaluation of art that is based on ethics as well as aesthetics and that combination seems so important in terms of any kind of critique you’re going to bring to an artwork. I also appreciate how she is often evaluating why certain works are happening in our particular historical moment, rather than trying to assess whether they are good or bad. But, going back to the term social practice I think it can be a useful classification to identify certain inclinations or tendencies or methodologies that have taken hold. We see how in our present moment those tendencies point to specific lacks in the world at large—social lacks—and there’s been lots of words to describe them from alienation and isolation, to disenchantment, disenfranchisement, or the loss of the commons. The point is that people largely feel that they can’t represent themselves politically or socially or even if they can, they’re misrecognized or ignored. It makes sense that social practice projects emphasize building relationships, sharing economies, and alternative structures in a world where those things are being more over-determined and enclosed upon everyday.

RWP: The problem is in isolating social practice as a specifically contemporary movement because that hides the ways that art activity has always been social, and maybe it also hides certain histories of resistance that connect a lot of the socially engaged artworks of today to a rich past of struggle in and out of the discipline of art proper.

AG: We wouldn’t describe ourselves as social practice artists, but then again we sometimes don’t even like calling ourselves artists, but rather people who make art—finding a definition through process and activity rather than by an externally affixed label or level of professionalism.


Anna Gray + Ryan Wilson Paulsen are a collaborative artist team whose current interests center around reading and writing holes into the political and institutional predicaments that make life worse. Their pieces and projects have been seen at PDX Contemporary Art, CampCARPA, The San Diego Art Museum, Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, Publication Studio, PICA’s Time Based Arts Festival, and in the pages of NOON Literary Annual. They live in Portland, Oregon where they teach at Portland State University and try to spend most of their time pretending with their 3-year-old son Calder.

Photos courtesy of the artists, PDX Contemporary Art, and the artists-in-residence of Camp CARPA, 2013.

A Conversation with the Matt Glass and Jordan Wayne Long, the Creators of Half Cut Tea

October 16, 2013 · Print This Article

Matt Glass, co-creator of Half Cut Tea

Matt Glass, co-creator of Half Cut Tea

A recent trip through LA gave me the opportunity to catch up with Matt Glass and Jordan Wayne Long, the two collaborators behind Half Cut Tea, an ongoing documentary video series featuring emerging artists across the US. Now in its second season, Half Cut Tea has traveled from Boston to Los Angeles and many cities in between, featuring soon-to-be-known artists including Jennifer Catron and Paul Outlaw (New York), Wesley Taylor (Detroit), Beverly Fre$h (Chicago), and Sean Joseph Patrick Carney (Portland). Both Glass and Long have temporarily suspended their individual art making to pursue this collaborative endeavor, which they plan to continue into a third season and beyond. Their motivation is two-fold: firstly, to bring visibility to a generation of younger makers who often are operating outside of traditional art centers; and secondly, to demystify the idea of the professional artist as an unattainable über-genius. Half Cut Tea brings a bit of day-to-day reality to the processes of art making, pursuing artists in their everyday habitats, which, in Glass and Long’s experience, can include calcite mines and jumping out of planes in parachutes. According to Long, the project won’t end until art making is perceived as an accessible occupation, unencumbered by the exclusivity and mind-numbing static of contemporary art speak.

I spoke with Half Cut Tea in their Culver City studio, which doubles as Pretty Gallery.

Jordan Wayne Long, co-creator of Half Cut Tea

Jordan Wayne Long, co-creator of Half Cut Tea

Sarah Margolis-Pineo: What motivated you to put your individual art practices on hold—somewhat on hold—to collaborate on a series of documentary videos, which are a distinct derivation from your creative work?

Matt Glass: For me, I’m still using the same skills. Whether or not I’m actively making art, I’m still exercising those muscles. Especially with creating the music, the videos have really allowed me to build and expand on what I already do as an artist.

Jordan Wayne Long: I think, for me, being in the art world for a couple years doing performance art, I saw so many people making work who weren’t getting exposure. Maybe they weren’t making the best connections or meeting the right people. Regardless, this video series allows us to make something awesome for little known artists and show that they’re as good or potentially better than those recognized by the mainstream art world. Also, when we started the series we had just came out of grad school and were so sick of art-speak. In mainstream art writing everyone just says the same damn thing! Just talking with people opens them up less formally. We’ll shoot two hours of interview for a three-minute video, pulling out dialog that really gets to the heart of what they’re doing.

MG: They say more about their art when they’re not talking about it.

SMP: What is your relationship as collaborators?

MG: We’re lucky because we have different strengths. I don’t like talking to people and Jordan really likes talking to people. I like being in a dark room, and Jordan thinks that’s kinda weird.

JWL: We’ve been friends since grad school, but I knew of the work Matt was doing even before that point and how crazily talented he is. He did so much work – so many things for people – and he’s never gotten any credit for it. I am just thrilled that this series gives Matt a venue to exercise his skill and talent. It’s just crazy that just the two of us are doing this project, and so much of it relies on Matt.

MG: That’s very kind of you.

JWL: We were both in bands before and have been on tour, so we are both accustomed to dealing with different personalities. We work really well together. Even when we get frustrated – when something doesn’t go right and we’ve had a bad shoot day – we both know when the other person needs to blow off some steam by being absolutely ridiculous. We’ll be in the car singing in different voices and then be fine 30-minutes later. It’s terrible doing something that you really enjoy and it’s going poorly.

MG: Every video we make, there’s always a point that I think: This sucks! I don’t want to do this anymore. But then it’s always fine.

SMP: How are you selecting the artists to feature?

JWL: When we first started, it was people we had already met. From there, the initial interviewees would know someone, so it was a rhizomic growth process. Now, we get sent submissions by colleagues or from artists themselves, and often, we’ll seek out particular artists that we’d like to feature as part of the series – a puppeteer in Venice Beach, for example.

We don’t make money doing this, so if we’re going to create a video, we have to really like the artist that we’re featuring. Each subject is heavily vetted. We have conversations by phone, over a meal – multiple times – just to make sure they’re not an asshole. We’ve definitely had to turn a few people down.

SMP: What are your main considerations when producing the content?

JWL: We know we want to see each artist working. To be honest: the only thing that we ask for is that he/she/they do something that doesn’t involve their art. When we shoot, we always want to do something entirely unrelated to art making, whether it be cliff jumping, playing Dominion, or playing with their dog.

SMP: Is this a way to expand the conversation beyond an artist’s professional identity? Why is this an important emphasis for the series?

JWL: In grad school, our mentor really wanted us to cultivate who we are—our public personas—as a means of developing our careers. I was cast as a soft-spoken, Southern performance artist. I’m not going to live my life hoping that this myth of my personality will take off. I just don’t think you have to fake this myth, hiding parts of yourself to embody some sort of monolithic identity. Part of Half Cut Tea is showing that people are just people. It’s not about putting artists on a pedestal, it’s about showing that professional art making is an attainable, everyday thing. Any kid from any small town can be an artist—there are so many different ways to be creative and be successful. If you don’t come from a lineage of artists, that’s a difficult thing to understand.

SMP: So Matt, it seems as though Jordan is really intent on shaping the diological content of the films, but I’m guessing you’re the one who is behind the visual content. What are your main considerations when approaching each new project?

MG: Jordan is in charge of talking about the art, and I’m in charge of showing about the art. I like the quiet moments. This is something it took us a video or two for us to learn: there have to be some quiet moments. Some of my favorite clips are when you have a nice music queue and an artist is just carrying a box somewhere. It’s in these short scenes that you’re really let in on the process. The verbal interviews are one way to get at an artist’s thinking, but it’s in the quiet moments that you can see the wheels turning—you can see the artist really considering their art.

JWL: It’s really funny. We’ll shoot for an hour and a half doing a formal interview, and as soon as Matt turns his camera and begin to shoot b-roll, the good audio will begin to flow. As soon as I say “I think we’re good,” the artist begins saying what we were hoping they’d say the whole time – the guard is put down. Everyone is so afraid of looking bad on camera. We’re not doing this to fuck with people; we’re doing this to create documents that truly capture an artist’s work.

SMP: The music seems really integral to the visual/aural texture of each video. How is it composed?

MG: I try to use instruments that match the videos and type of art that each individual is making. For example, the Nick [Olson] and Lilah [Horwitz] video features a lot of acoustic guitar, hurdy-gurdy, and violin. In a video we did recently, I put in more electronic elements than usual because the artist deals with mechanics – he’s an inventor.

Sometimes, I go over the top. With each video, I like to create sound that would convey the same narrative arc even if there was no actual interview. There are distinct ups and downs. In a way, it’s like a 5-minute film score.

SMP: Where has the journey of this project taken you geographically?

JWL: We hit… How many states did we hit?

MG: Six? Eight? Massachusetts, New York, West Virginia, Arkansas, Utah, Michigan, California, Oregon… And quite a few in between.

JWL: One of the main things was going outside of traditional art hubs and find people who are doing great stuff..

SMP: I’m guessing you’ve had a number of adventures through this project. Anything particularly memorable?

JWL: The cave. Matt was not a fan of the cave. We went and broke into calcite mine – that was cool. And, obviously, we only used 30-seconds of footage, but we shot for a couple hors in that mine. Matt only went about 100-feet in.

MG: I waited for the earthquake outside.

JWL: What about the time we dodged dozens of tornados? All the way from West Virginia to Detroit, we were avoiding a crazy storm system. We had to wait part of it out in an Olive Garden. Thank god for breadsticks.

SMP: Now that you’re finishing up season two, are there plans for season three?

JWL: It’s in preproduction. We’re still locating artists, mapping the regions we’d like to travel to, and locating funding. I’d like to do the Deep South, and I’m trying to convince Matt to go overseas.

MG: But I don’t even want to go to Florida.

SMP: How are you promoting your work?

JWL: We have a budget of about $40/month. It’s pretty cool to be able to reach the audience that we have. We have about 250,000 hits for the whole season, which is impressive considering the budget. We’re taking the grass roots approach. We pick our markets; for example, if an artist is from Wisconsin we promote in Wisconsin newspapers and hope that the thing will snowball. This is something that I have no experience with, but it’s fun to play at it with such limited resources. It’s so different than promoting your own art practice because there’s a certain guilt with self-promotion. When you’re promoting another artist, you’re doing something great for them in addition to promoting your own work.

All photos and videos courtesy of Half Cut Tea.

Matt Glass is a photographer, filmmaker and musician from Utah with an MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art. Matt’s films are full of puppets and other oddities. His music has been featured on various television programs on NBC, CBS, FOX and more … and he likes pizza.

Jordan Wayne Long is a performance and video artist originally from Bald Knob, Arkansas. He graduated with his MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art in 2011. His current work deals with trauma … and he loves sweet teas.



Rise and Shine, Portland: It’s Time for TBA

September 18, 2013 · Print This Article

Keith Hennessy, Rigorous Play Workshop, 9/15/13

Keith Hennessy, Rigorous Play Workshop, 9/15/13

It’s that time again. Each fall, Portland wakes up from its bucolic, sun-soaked summer reprieve just in time for Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s (PICA) annual Time Based Art festival, or T:BA. The only thing that can compel Oregonians to put away their tents, hiking boots, and kayaks each September is the promise of a healthy dose of culture served by PICA’s Artistic Director, Angela Mattox, along with visual and performing arts curators, Kristan Kennedy and Erin Boberg Doughton.

Now in its 11th year, T:BA:13 has become a mainstay of the regional arts calendar, bringing a litany of international artists to Portland to present performances and exhibitions, as well as a robust program of workshops, talks, and late-night happenings. The festival is purported to seek out interdisciplinary art practices, supporting artists who challenge the notion of performance by transcending dan ce, music, theater, visual art, and new media to interrogate how the genre can engage contemporary audiences. For Portlanders however, T:BA brings a much needed glimpse of the outside world in. Marooned in the Pacific Northwest, the city tends to be a world unto itself, where imagination abounds but criticality is often in short supply. Presenting projects from Morocco, Algeria, Sweden, Argentina, Chile and beyond, T:BA transforms Portland into a thriving mecca for international culture… At least one week per year.

Presented in this post and in a follow-up next week is my T:BA rundown of select performances and installations in this year’s compelling, (pleasantly overwhelming), lineup. One of the annual highlights of the festival is late-night programming at The Works. Organized in the spirit of the contemporary experience-driven cultural economy, The Works presents spectacular events of mass-appeal including an opening night performance by Julie Ruin and a Drag Ball moderated by Portland’s own Kaj-Anne Pepper and Chanticleer Tru. Oh yes, and there’s definitely a bar—a few in fact, along with a nightly selection of snacks prepared by some of Portland’s most celebrated culinary superstars.


The Julie Ruin

The Julie Ruin’s Kathleen Hanna

The Julie Ruin, (Kathleen Hanna, Kathi Wilcox, Kenny Mellman, Carmine Covelli, and Sara Landeau) at The Works, 9/12/13

The Julie Ruin opened T:BA:13 with a much-anticipated performance that left me nostalgic for my late-90s collegiate self in the best way possible. High-energy dancing, getting fired-up on feminism, and poising one’s self with some weeknight boozing were mandatory. Former Bikini Kill and Le Tigre frontwoman Kathleen Hanna is ever spectacular—even the hipper-than-though art crowd couldn’t help but shake-it. And Cathy Whim’s Hawaiian hot dog was the delictable cherry on top of the already kickass sundae. Wins all around.


Trahal Harrell, Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem

Trahal Harrell, Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem

Trajal Harrell, Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem (Made-to-Measure)/Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (M2M), 9/13/13

The question Trajal Harrell posed when creating this piece was: What would have happened in 1963 if one of the postmoderns went uptown to Harlem? The answer: a drawn-out, hypnotic chant of, “don’t stop the dance,” that progressed from a static aural performance to utter ecstatic dance chaos.

Trahal Harrell, Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem

Trahal Harrell, Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem

I’ll admit: the first half of the performance was uncomfortable to say the least. At one point, I was scanning the room for fire exits and contemplating the point that discomfort transitions to become legitimate torture. The second half however, was joyfully absurd. Sampling sound and gesture across decades — from 1960s glamour to 1990s hip hop, the piece became about the evolution of culture and its re-contextualization with every emerging age.


Meow Meow & Thomas M. Lauderdale with the Oregon Symphony Orchestra

Meow Meow & Thomas M. Lauderdale with the Oregon Symphony Orchestra

Meow Meow & Thomas M. Lauderdale (of Pink Martini), co-presented with the Oregon Symphony Orchestra, 9/14/13

Meow Meow is simply fantastic, “exquisite sack of a body,” and all. During the performance, she swilled wine, went through numerous on-stage costume changes, ordered around young men with the utmost commanding shrillness. As part of the grand finale, the incomparable diva crowd surfed across a sea of aging Oregon Symphony Orchestra season ticket holders.

Kaj-Anne Pepper

Kaj-Anne Pepper

Critical Mascara: A Post-Realness Drag Ball hosted by Kaj-Anne Pepper & Chanticleer Tru at The Works, 9/14/13

The only spectacle that could adequitely follow Meow Meow and Pink Martini is, of course, a drag ball.


Lola Arias, El Ano en que naci (The Year I was Born)

Lola Arias, El Ano en que naci (The Year I was Born)

Lola Arias, El Ano en que naci (The Year I was Born), 9/15/13

The Year I was Born was a poignant reflection on Pinochet-era in Chile that had me weeping in my theater seat like a complete wuss. The narrative was unpacked through memories and ephemera shared by 11 Chileans born between the mid-1970s to late-1980s during the Pinochet regime. Each cast member reflected on his/her parents, individuals representing every aspect of the social and political spectrum, many of whom fought each other during that contentious and bloody time. With youthful zeal, the Chileans mapped epic journeys across continents, read letters, told stories of love and regret, and put on the garments worn by loved ones. The performance was a heartbreaking reminder — punctuated by folksy musical interludes and poppy American Bandstand-esqe dance moves — of the many micro-narratives and everyday happenings that, cumulatively, add up to revolution.


Linda Austin & David Eckard

Linda Austin & David Eckard

Linda Austin & David Eckard with music composed by Doug Theriault, Three Trick Pony, 9/16/13

Linda Austin‘s choreography combined with David Eckard‘s sculptures make for disconcerting and vaguely perverse antics to ensue. After viewing Lola Arias’s performance the night before, Austin’s dance transported me right back to Portland: where stunningly-crafted objects set the stage for imagination, absurdity… And something curiously close to twerking.


Getting to Know You(Tube) presented by Crystal Baxley & Stefan Ransom at The Works, 9/16/13

Much to my disappointment, I missed this event, so I asked my friend and colleague Emily Henderson to reflect:

Crystal Baxley and Stefan Ransom’s project Getting to Know YouTube (GTKYT) invites people to make 15-minute presentations utilizing YouTube in any way with a Q&A after each presentation. The result ends up offering a unique perspective and commentary on YouTube videos if not the culture it generates. The program kicked off with Andrew Ritchey presenting a selection of various people doing covers of Taio Cruz’s Dynamite. It offered a funny and interesting glimpse into wanna be star culture and also people who just wanna share their obscure musical abilities. Dalas Verdugo introduced some rare gems in what I would call some of YouTube’s greatest hits in the lower views range. Jen Delos Reyes’ selection was the heartbeat of the evening sharing videos dealing with Buddhism, education and compassion, Sister Corita making an appearance in the lineup. Jamie Edwards closed out the program with a hilarious monologue of YouTuber comments read alongside alien videos. The comments alone were priceless in the battle between different commentators regarding the validity of alien videos. The evening ended with a small dance party mixed by GTKYT’s Baxley and Ransom alongside audience selected videos.


Laura Arrington & Jesse Hewit

Laura Arrington & Jesse Hewit

Laura Arrington & Jesse Hewit, ADULT, 9/17/13

After 45-minutes of wild dancing and beautifully sultry tabletop humping, Laura Arrington and Jesse Hewit served the audience cereal and Jack Daniels and proceeded to get freaky with duct tape, face paint, and glow sticks. This performance, billed as “acting out collective fantasies on death and dying,” did not exude the anxiety that the subject of morbidity and mortality generally inspires; rather, the choreographed frolicking expressed a rampant release of id, complete with allusions to masturbation and other physical discharges. Invoking gestures and sentiment of children through the bodies and desires of their fully-grown selves, the performers articulated a truth that has become increasingly clear as years pass: there’s no such thing as an adult.


As promised, more to come on T:BA:13 next week! To view the full line-up of T:BA:13 events, go to the T:BA calendar.

Thanks to Emily Henderson, Gia Goodrich and the PICA Press Corps, and Patrick Leonard.

Ruffling Feathers: A Conversation with Sara Huston

July 31, 2013 · Print This Article

Daisy Chain Procession At Vassar

Vassar College

When I was in college, one of my classmates petitioned to declare an independent major in Men’s Studies. True story: he went so far as to stand up in front of a faculty review panel, plead his case, (something as base as: “if I can major in Women’s Studies, I should be able to pursue Men’s Studies”), and was promptly laughed out of the classroom. One might assume that given the context, (Vassar, c.2001), it was some sort of performance piece or screwball stunt; but I can claim with near certainty that this request to study the work of Men was delivered with the naive seriousness that only a 19-year old can muster.

I have to admit that I’ve always been grateful for my classmate’s momentary mental lapse, because it was out of this campus drama that I recognized my academic career as a veritable homage to Men’s Studies. Since that time, days rarely pass that do not serve-up some small reminder of the maleness of the universe, from a feature on Janet Yellen or Denise Scott Brown, to an all staff meeting where the divide between upper-level administration and lower-level cultural worker is clearly demarcated by gender.

White Box Gallery

White Box Visual Laboratory

Recently, I was thrilled to learn about ruf·fle, an exhibition organized by Portland’s League of Awesome Women Designers, (LAWD), that opened earlier this month at the University of Oregon’s White Box Visual Laboratory. Even in a town like Portland, where inclusive design firms seem to outnumber coffee shops, women are underrepresented in the field—statistically in number and in rank, but perhaps more importantly, women are less visible as a driving force behind the innovation that Portland is celebrated for. In her essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” cultural critic/historian Rebecca Solnit employs the phrase archipelago of arrogance to describe an inflated self-confidence—a distinctly masculine phenomena—that is so aggressively assured, it keeps women bound in self-doubt, inhibiting them from speaking up and, in turn, from being heard. In an essay written for GOOD, Alissa Walker seemingly responds to Solnit by encouraging women in design to use social media as a way to assert one’s voice in the field. She writes, “in this age, women can’t wait for someone else to organize the event or to curate the museum show… Creating a rich narrative, illustrated with videos, photos, blog posts, essays, is something I don’t see nearly enough from women in the field. Their numbers may be small, but it’s the responsibility of that 10% to tell at least 50% of the story.”

Founded by industrial designer Kari Merkl, LAWD was established as vehicle to promote visibility by cultivating connections between women in design, providing a space for discussion and critique, and supporting a network for professional and creative opportunities. Merkl has since moved to Chicago and LAWD has been temporarily relinquished to Sara Huston, a consummate maker and interdisciplinary creative, who conceived and organized ruf·fle in collaboration with the eleven LAWD members featured in the exhibition. The word ruffle forms the pith of the project and, explored as both noun and verb, becomes the meeting place where twelve very disparate design practices meet. Defined as disorder, disruption, and perturbation, but also as ornament and frill, the term provides ample fodder for design work that is not outwardly gendered, (no “shrink it and pink it” tactics employed here), but undeniably, is laced with a feminine sensibility that illustrates how women are actively engaging and innovating the field of design today.

I spoke with Sara Huston in her studio that she shares with her partner John Paananen. Together, Huston and Paananen make up the collaborative interdisciplinary design studio, the last attempt at greatness.

Lydia Cambron, Twice Daily

Lydia Cambron, Twice Daily

Sarah Margolis-Pineo: What is it about Portland that draws designers?

Sara Huston: Portland is a great incubator, but unfortunately, it’s not the best business atmosphere if you’re looking to sell work.  At least that’s what we’ve found.  A majority of the things we make are sold outside of Portland.  We have a creative and supportive community here, although maybe a little less critical than we’d like. Coming from the Midwest/East Coast and the rigor of Cranbrook, we’ve found that there is a lack of critical feedback, and competition in the city.  So far, we have been able to sustain our practice here, but it’s been difficult.  I try to seek out specific people in Portland to help fulfill the need for critical feedback and conversation, people that push me to create better work.

SMP: Was it from this desire to cultivate a critical community of sorts that produced League of Awesome Women Designers, (LAWD)?

SH: Kari Merkl, a designer who lived and worked in Portland for almost a decade and recently relocated to Chicago, started LAWD.  She started the group in an effort to be less isolated as a one-woman design studio, meet more women in the design community and foster a network of like-minded designers.  She has subsequently continued this idea in Chicago as well.  Right now, the Portland group is at a tipping point, leaders are stepping down and the group is shifting, into what?  I am not sure.  This shift and the ruf·fle exhibition sparked a branding exercise to explore the identity of the group and to discuss what we are really about and how we want to operate going forward.  We soon realized that there is no one unifying voice or identity other than the fact that we’re all women located along the art-design spectrum participating in monthly meetings that are run casually by whom ever wants to take the lead.  The women in the group come from a diverse set of backgrounds and professions, and I feel that is a huge strength of the group.  I have found that every woman participates in LAWD for different reasons, some are interested in connecting to find job opportunities, for networking, and others, including myself, are interested in critical feedback and discourse.

Kari Merkl, Holdover

Kari Merkl, Holdover

SMP: What do you mean by critical discourse?

SH: In-depth discussions about how and why we create things that involve going deeper than the surface.  Some topics I enjoy are process, technique, material culture, design/art philosophy and theory, identity, emerging technology, the integration/rejection of technology, social justice, and the battle of sustaining an independent practice in the US.  The group in the past has taken on conversations about what it means to be a designer/artist professional today in the midst of disciplines merging, and more of an emphasis being put on having a socially or environmentally focused practice… When I stop to think about it, gender issues rarely come up, if ever.  In smaller settings outside the meetings it seems like women are more open to discuss these deeper topics and gender topics like the representation of women in the field, pay structures, and other traditional “gender politics.”  It might be that the larger group setting and the casual nature of LAWD discourages conversation from going deeper more often.

A lot of us work and collaborate with men, and with disciplinary and professional boundaries dissolving, many LAWD members feel that defining oneself as a woman designer needs to give way to just designer; adding the word “woman” amplifies the differentiating factor if it’s continuously referenced.  But, at the same time, we still feel underrepresented in the field at large. There is a group called ForWARD in the city that was formed by a few women architects that meet monthly as well —they’re less casual than LAWD—but clearly, there’s a need for these formations and discussions.

Ali Gradisher, Myrargata Wall

Ali Gradischer, Myrargata Wall

SMP: You, and I’m guessing many of the women in LAWD, are not your traditional designers. What was your entry into the field?

SH: After receiving my BFA in sculpture,  I applied to graduate school in a variety of different disciplines.  I applied at the University of Cincinnati for architecture, Yale for sculpture, RISD for furniture, and Cranbrook for 3D design.  I was admitted to all but RISD. The minute I walked onto campus at Cranbrook it was obvious, I belonged there and the reminder of the day’s visit only confirmed that initial feeling.  Cranbrook is known for its rigorous studies, interdisciplinary environment and the pushing and blurring of boundaries.  A majority of the work I experimented with at Cranbrook was meant to challenge the language and intersection of art and design through mediums and visual languages that fascinated me.  I was interested in challenging what one thinks they know, what they expect, and where they think disciplinary boundaries lie.  I wanted to provoke people to think about objects in a new way.

At one point while studying at Cranbrook our artist in resident, Scott Klinker, pegged me as an artist with a furniture/storage fetish.  At that point, it was a perfect way to explain who I was and why I was using the language of furniture in a visually expressive way.  There really was no logic of it other than a fascination, a fetish.  My love for boxes, jars, tins, etc., probably has a bit to do with being obsessed with organization and an interest in the placement of objects in a space.  Organization allows my overly busy mind to find peace.  A lot of my work in grad school was also inspired and driven by these obsessions and fascinations with certain objects.  I feel like I explored these areas more as an artist than a designer, but it crosses over so much and it is hard to say that I do not also look at objects from the standpoint of a designer.

Sara Huston, EXPECTATION 05

Sara Huston, EXPECTATION 05

SH: I’ve just always been inexplicably drawn to objects, whether decorative or functional, and I think this is what drew me into design when I was studying art.  I became interested in the perception of the object, the usage, and the misusage of the object, which is also a focus in design.  I was never taught to separate the two disciplines or felt a need to separate them. They share so much and I was interested in, and still am interested in existing in that shared space, the space between. As the distinctions of a discipline blurs new potential and meaning emerge.  It is who I am and how I identify myself, and always will be …. even if it is hard to answer the question, “what do you do?”

SMP: But you’re definitely working at a certain scale relative to the human body that speaks more to furniture than the handheld crafted object.

SH: So far anyway.  I expect there to be a movement towards smaller containers and larger livable structures in the future, it’s been on my mind a lot.  I don’t limit myself because I don’t think I can work in a smaller/larger scale, my work just has yet to go there… When I initially relocated to Portland, my work shifted from sculptural pieces and into collaborating with John [Paananen] and working on projects together that were more design oriented—the sofa, rockers, and lamps.  It was a natural progression considering we met at Cranbrook, we were interested in the same design/art conversations and were now in a relationship and living together. Over the past year, we realized that we don’t work well when we start projects together, but instead we worked best when independently pursuing work and then collaborating once a project is started.  This realization birthed a whole new series of work in our studio, [the last attempt at greatness]; for example, John is working on a series of 12 structures that are meant to be quick physically built sketches which will culminate and inspire the creation of a larger project.   I’m currently working on an audio piece that will be included in the White Box exhibition, ruf•fle. It’s about disciplinary boundaries thresholds and categorization.  I am ruffling my own sensibilities in terms of process and medium with this piece and John has been a great sounding board and source of critical discourse for the project, pushing me to do even better work.

Sara Huston, Permanently Liminal

Sara Huston, Permanently Liminal

SH: The audio piece is terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. It’s a door that I’m opening for myself and there’s been a lot of hesitation.  I don’t practice as an audio artist specifically, but I see myself as an artist who can use any media to express what I’m trying to do, much in the way that designers are not limited by a singular material, but use what ever is needed to accomplish the job. Ultimately, what this piece has done is create a bridge into the new media/digital realm that I’ve been dreaming about.   I am used to working as a visual artist and once the visual component is taken away, my senses are heightened, and new ways of working develop.  New ways of forming audio and experiencing audio start to develop and I have found myself creating a new relationship to a medium that I had not paid much attention to in the past.  It has been very liberating and inspiring to work with audio.  It’s been a huge challenge, and that’s what I was hoping the show ruf•fle would do.

SMP: What is the content of the audio?

SH: The audio states in my own voice: “I am a designer. I am not a designer. I am an artist. I am not an artist,” and the phrases are overlapped so you can distinguish individual words, but there’s a lack of clarity and definition of what I am saying I am or am not. The need for classification and definition is called for in academia and when trying to find a place for myself professionally.  I run across this when in social situations or meeting someone new when I am asked, “what do you do?” When you exist in the in-between space, this liminal state, what you do can be difficult to communicate.  There’s Art and Design and I am always in the middle.  

Sara Huston, Permanently Liminal (detail)

Sara Huston, Permanently Liminal (detail)

SMP: How do you relate to craft?

SH: To me, and in my work art and design rest on top of craft.  I was taught in school to always focus on making something with an attention to detail and with the rigor of a crafts person no matter what medium I was working with, and how much experience I had with it.   This was referred to, by my instructors, as ‘considering the crafting of the object’, and their standards were very high.   I use the same principles to this day in all my work and when creating the audio and floor object for the ruf•fle show.

SMP: I’m guessing you’re still pushed into one camp or the other, despite all best efforts.

SH: I’m often referred to as a furniture designer, at least 50% of the time.  Part of my thinking going into the ruf•fle show was in reaction to that.  I was looking to provoke those who view me as a furniture designer, among other things.  I see myself as a provocateur of thought and visual language.  The motivation for the work is to disrupt people who come into the gallery looking for clarity, definition, comprehension or an established meaning behind the work they are viewing or assumed discipline of the person who made the work.  I am not interested in providing clarity, definition or something the viewer can comprehend, but instead I am interested in creating a situation that challenges their expectations, induces reflection and opens them up to new ways of thinking.  If they walk out frustrated, or confused then I’ve accomplished what I set out to do. Those moments can evolve into acceptance and a higher level of realization—they don’t always—it’s a tipping point.  I see my work as being the pusher.

White Box Gallery

White Box, ruf fle (installation)

SMP: Is this your way forging a new language, or at least initiating conversation, and does this conceptually feed into the way you’ve framed ruf•fle ?

SH: Yes.  The exhibition statement and title is a collective look into interpreting one word—ruffle—to motivate and inspire 12-women to create work.  Some women are considering it as a literal ruffle of fabric, others as a disturbance of a surface, or as in “ruffling one’s feathers.”  I chose a disturbance or ‘ruffling of ones feathers’.  The ability for that word to be interpreted outside of the feminine is huge, and that’s part of the reason why we chose it. It inherently seems very feminine, but the interpretations that are coming out elude gender-specific connotations.

SMP: It’s interesting that you chose an indirect way to address gender by using a term where the feminine connotations are pervasive but can go easily unacknowledged. Seems telling…

SH: There’s definitely diversity in how the women see issues of women in design.  There was one conversation when we were looking at the identity of the group, the question was raised of whether or not the group needed to go on being women only.  There are a variety of viewpoints, generations, and professional fields involved in the group.  It would be interesting for all the women in the group to sit down and have a focused conversation on issues that surround women in design.  The younger women in the group are definitely tending towards wanting to emphasize the gender issues and even going so far as to bring up inviting men into the group.

White Box Gallery

White Box, ruf fle (installation)

SMP: Oh, wow. Do you have to fall back on the old argument: every group and industry is run by men for men, can’t we just have this?

SH:  The group was started with that in mind and I think it is important.  Exhibitions like ruf•fle and the group LAWD are opportunities to express: we’re here, we’re doing stuff, and it can’t be ignored; but, being a group composed solely of women somehow allows women-focused issues to fall by the wayside during meetings… I’m interested to hear women designing in Portland discuss whether they consider their work as distinctly feminine, or if it’s gender neutral. When I stop to consider my own practice, I try to strip personal narrative or my identity away from the work.  I do not see my work as specifically feminine and when I create, I do not put an emphasis on being a woman who creates.  I give my students articles about gender issues in design and put an emphasis on knowing that the conversation is happening and has not ended, which I think is very important and part of ones education.

Is it important to thinking about gendered design when making or does that reflection come after the fact? Is it something we do intuitively? Is the entire conversation merely reflective? Just exploring that idea and how it relates to action is compelling in itself.


Sara Huston is a Portland-based artist, designer, maker, and educator. She and her partner John Paananen make up the collaborative interdisciplinary studio the last attempt at greatness, which explores subjects of progress, expectation, liminal space, categorization, perception, value, and the intersection and language in art and design. Huston and Paananen’s work is aimed at provoking discourse and contemplation in the viewer or user in an attempt to disrupt conventional ways of thinking, induce reflection, and challenge the boundaries of what is known.

ruf•le is on view at the University of Oregon’s White Box Visual Laboratory, (Portland), through August 24, 2013. The exhibition includes: Natalie Barela, Albertha Bradley, Noelle Bullock, Lydia Cambron, Flo & Goose, Alison Gradischer, Sara Huston, Kate MacKinnon, Kari Merkl, Diane Pfeiffer, Jennifer Wall, and JJ Wright. Organized by Sara Huston, Lydia Cambron, and Flo Truong, with assistance from Ashley Gibson, Manager, White Box.

Introductory photo is courtesy of Vassar College archives.

All other photos are courtesy of White Box, (c) Sara Huston, 2013