My Time In Wassaic
Please write a paragraph (or a few!) about your time here in Wassaic. You should say a bit about yourself, where you came from, how you got here, what media you like to work in typically, and what you chose to work on while you were here in Wassaic. Then talk about what Wassaic means to you, how it influenced your work, and what you might want others to know about Wassaic. Write from the heart and write in natural language. We want people to get to know you through this work. Be sure to embed hyperlinked words within these body paragraphs, so that we can link out to your portfolio site, exhibitions, movements, etc. Have fun with this!
By Lucy Commoner, May 2018
Your work was featured in the very first Wassaic Project exhibition 10 years ago! How has your long history of involvement with the Wassaic Project impacted your artwork?
Great question. I really do feel like a Wassaic veteran. I love what the project stands for and as I’ve watched its impact grow and evolve over the years, I can’t help feel warm and fuzzy with something like pride. Indeed, I showed in the first exhibition — I did an installation that filled the top floor of the Mill — and I was actually a fly on the wall during some of the early conversations that led to the founding of the Project. I knew then it was something exciting and very special and in a way, I’m not at all surprised by the impressive force it has become.
The first summer exhibition occurred just as I was leaving graduate school and I’ve participated in the summer exhibition every few years. My work has matured considerably since then in many ways including content and format but also in terms of professional stakes. Stated differently, I feel like I’ve kind of grown up (as an artist) in tandem with the Wassaic Project.
Showing in Wassaic has given me a creative and professional boost each time. It was the specific character of the incredible Maxon Mills building that inspired my first site-sensitive installation ten years ago, when at the time, site was not a big part of my work. I’ve responded to the mill as a site in other works over the years and in concert, the idea of place has grown to be essential within my work.
In terms of opportunity, the Wassaic community has always been intentionally supportive of my career. As I reflect on professional highlights of the last decade, many of them were born from connections and friends I made in Wassaic. I honestly owe so much to the Wassaic Project.
You are a teacher and sculptor and you were born and raised on the Caribbean island of Curaçao, in the former Netherlands Antilles. Through your extensive travel and research in a range of other countries, you have created beautiful photographs and sculptural works based on your immersion in other cultures and environments. How have these experiences influenced your work in general?
I work at a small liberal arts college and it’s a great fit for me because I love teaching. While my practice has always involved studio-based inquiry, academia has mechanisms to support research and so I’ve had encouragement and opportunities to cultivate a research life that is somewhat formalized. Often this work manifests as strategic travel that I attempt to understand by way of photography. At times this endeavor runs parallel to and informs my primary practice and on occasion it overlaps it completely.
As you mention, I grew up in the Caribbean, which was for me a land of dramatic contrasts, particularly visible in the way human industry is entangled with the natural word and the way wealth is distributed. I’m drawn to places in the world with similarly dramatic contrasts and travel in them in order to look deeper and learn as much as possible. The Ecuadorian Amazon for example, thought to be the most biodiverse place on Earth but also home to the region’s richest oil reserves, was an immensely fascinating place. Another excursion took me to the Himalayan nation of Bhutan last year, where I spent four months. Bhutan is sometimes called the last Shangri-La because of how fiercely self-isolating it was until 1997, when it allowed in radio, television, and the internet all at once and is now navigating a uniquely rapid modernization.
The work I’ve made in response includes a series of landscape photographs on aluminum plates that are laser-engraved with drawings. I also used photogrammetry to create a high-resolution scan of a remote mountain top terrain, which required chartering a helicopter to access. I used the scan data and a CNC mill to create an accurate replica of the terrain and ultimately cast it in bronze. So in other words, the travel and research has in some cases allowed me to collect data that literally shapes the work and in other cases my experiences abroad contribute more broadly to my understanding of the world.
In your practice, you seem to be exploring the interface between closely observed nature and man-made artifacts. As you modify raw materials with a high level of craftsmanship, you are also embracing damage and repair. How do these concepts relate to your current installation of the monumental cast paper sculpture, Cedar Tree?
Cedar Tree is like the shed skin of a snake. I found a beautiful fallen aromatic cedar tree in the forest one day. It’s a dense forest, so the tree landed on other fallen trees and was thus protected from the ground. It was completely dry and without exterior rot. I cut it into a few sections small enough to extract and essentially paper-mâchéd it with tracing paper. I carefully cut away the layers of paper and reassembled the pieces. Like a snake shedding its skin to become clean and new, creating a cast of the fallen tree was an act of rejuvenation. The sculpture weighs almost nothing and is installed overhead.
The work is directly related to an older paper work I made in the mill, Ghost, 2012. The first time I entered the mill I was attracted to the large grain hopper (about two-thirds of the way up the building if I recall correctly). The hopper is a fourteen-foot tall funnel made of riveted tin and is rusting gracefully. There has always been a grappling with the notion of repair in my work and it even extends back to childhood attempts to fix my immediate surroundings. The hopper is like a ghost of industry past and so I used it as a mold and cast a new skin for it. Like Cedar Tree, I removed this white paper skin and I suspended it nearby in the mill. Careful viewers will find flecks and residues of the original object captured in these works.
In this exhibition, in addition to Cedar Tree, late this summer you will install for the Wassaic Project their first large-scale commissioned outdoor artwork, generously funded through the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation. The work is located directly outside the Mill building and is based on industrial shipping containers. Can you discuss the inspiration for this piece?
I’m very excited to be working on this outdoor piece. The shipping container is a symbolic object that I’ve been working with for a few years. I grew up less than a mile from one of the busiest harbors in the Caribbean and I currently reside near Boston, another port city, so I think about them quite a bit.
Interestingly, it was the standardization of the box design and dimensions that allowed for a revolution in global commerce. It was recently argued by the journalist Rose George, who spent some time aboard international container ships, that ninety percent of all goods and materials are at some point contained in these colorful ubiquitous rectangles. At any given point, there are tens of thousands of ships carrying millions of freight containers across the oceans out of view. I have a general sense of their contents, but when I see one whiz by on the interstate or a parade of them along a set of train tracks, I still play a game of guessing what’s inside.
The work being produced for the Wassaic Project is a composition of about thirty shipping containers, cast hollow in glass fiber-reinforced concrete and colored richly with integrated pigments. The containers are rendered at a one eighth scale, or roughly the size of people. The downshift in scale is important to the work because it’s about establishing the kind of closeness that we have with domestic-sized objects with these industrial objects that are essential to life as we know it. The containers will be visible from the train tracks in Wassaic.
Photos by Walker Esner and Jeff Barnett-Winsby