About the Artist
Natalie Baxter (b. 1985) explores concepts of place-identity, nostalgic Americana, and traditional gender stereotypes through soft sculpture and video. Baxter’s work playfully pushes controversial issues, creating an accessible entry point for unpacking matters of tension in today’s political and social landscape. Baxter received her BA in Fine Art from the University of the South in Sewanee, TN in 2007 and MFA from the University of Kentucky in 2012. She currently lives and works in New York, NY.
with Joe Brommel, August 2018
What did you work on in your first residency here? And how has that informed what you wanted to do this time? Ditto for the exhibitions.
The first time I showed here two years ago, I had this series of droopy guns. Since then I’ve shown them in places all over the world, but Wassaic gave me the first big opportunity to show them.
Then when I came into the residency I started this ongoing flag series. I listen to the radio a lot while I work, and they were talking about how the Democratic National Convention doesn’t have enough flagwaving. That was around when Trump was becoming a realistic candidate, and the Charleston shooting had also sparked this big debate over the Confederate flag. I was like, “wow, these symbols mean so many different things to so many people.” So I started this series of flags, thinking about the way that the American flag represents pride, and shame, and all these different feelings that it morphs into.
This time, I’ve been thinking about eagles. All my work deals with this Americana — things that have to deal with weird, masculine energy mixed with pride and patriotism, so I wanted to make eagles into these goofy pride symbols. I originally thought I was going to make them out of paper mache, but then I realized that these already exist, so I found some on Ebay and Amazon, and then bedazzled them.
And where does your Alt Caps series fit in alongside the Warm Gun series and the eagles?
So a couple years ago, somebody wrote an article about my work for Huffington Post. It was a positive discussion of the work, but then Glenn Beck's website, The Blaze, wrote a response to that article called “Feminist artist takes on ‘toxic masculinity’ with ‘soft, impotent’ sculptures of guns.” You're not supposed to read the comments of articles, but I wanted to see what people were saying. There were around 95 comments, and they were mostly negative and mostly geared towards my role as a woman. Like, “clearly Natalie Baxter is confused about her role as a woman,” “this girl must hate men,” or “she must be a lesbian,” or “this chick needs a good railing,” or “she must be a man-hating feminazi with no redeemable qualities, not to mention no brain.” This very intense poking at my sexuality or gender with the same angry masculine energy that I was exploring in the Warm Gun series. I actually reached out to a sociologist in Arizona and ended up going to Arizona for a conference. Her work is a lot about how men are losing this rank, and how women are getting more power and therefore men feel less power, feel less masculine, and feel like carrying a gun gives them more masculine energy.
So I decided to turn the comments into banners that were similar to suffragette banners. Kind of poking fun at this weird energy — I don’t understand my role as a woman but I’m spending a week quilting a banner? — but also showing that this is a pocket of the world that still exists. It’s exactly what the suffragettes were fighting for 100 years ago, but in this more contemporary context of internet trolls.
Is it important to you to work in the rural spaces that your work is commenting on, then? Or are places like Wassaic mostly a way to step away from being in the city for a while?
No, I think it’s good. I used to work for CBS News, and the day after the election a lot of people were like “you're from Kentucky, explain what happened!” Because it seems very foreign and confusing when you live in New York, and the media, especially after the election, was very much pushing this divide between rural and urban, or between coastal and middle America. But I don't think it's as much of a divide as it’s played out to be.
A story I tell a lot is: I had a show in Kentucky of all the droopy guns, and two older women walked in. They didn't know that I was the artist, and they were having this conversation where they were first like, “Oh, these are so cute and colorful and funny.” But then they took a minute and one said, “well I live on a farm, I have a gun, and I want to have it because I want to feel protected.” And the other woman was said, “Yeah, but I don't think we need to have these assault rifles. I think that those could be banned.” They were able to engage in this conversation under the veil of something really approachable. That’s the main goal of my work: to walk that line where you're not hitting someone over the head with your thoughts and beliefs, but sparking conversations that maybe they you wouldn't have otherwise.
To facilitate a conversation rather than hammer home a didactic point.
Yeah, rather than preach to the choir. Because what good does that do you?
It seems like the moment you push it too much it becomes something that's being said a lot already.
And have you often been called upon to be that “voice of the people”? Like, “Oh, you're from Kentucky? Speak for that entire population.” Or is that something relatively new since people have gotten hyper-focused on this urban-rural divide after the election?
Yeah, I think after the election, it was more like “explain this thing!” But I can't explain that. It’s complicated, and I don't even understand it completely. I'm no expert. I just make art in reaction to these things. You don't have to answer questions with art; you get to create this feeling, this language that means something to you when you make it, but that means something different to people when they see it. You have no control over that, and that's the beauty of it in a way. You know what I mean?
Photos by Verónica González Mayoral