You have a consistent history of involvement at the Wassaic Project: residencies at the Wassaic Project in 2014 and 2015, participation in the Summer Exhibition in 2015, and working as a staff member for the Wassaic Project in 2015–17. How has this deep connection with the Wassaic Project and the local community affected your practice?
Being a part of the Wassaic Project community has had a huge impact on my work and on my life. When I came to Wassaic as a resident in August 2014, I was still pretty new to thinking of myself as an artist. I studied Art History as an undergrad, worked in arts administration for years, and didn’t really have a dedicated studio practice until 2011. During my first Wassaic Project residency, I met other working artists (including my fellow resident, Will Hutnick) who would become lifelong friends, colleagues, and mentors, and felt an immediate affinity for the landscape, history, and human and non-human inhabitants of the area. In Wassaic, there was always time to stop and have a conversation. The juxtaposition of natural beauty with markers of agricultural, industrial, and recreational intervention and participation in the landscape reminded me of my undergraduate thesis work on the Hudson River School, and the politics of that movement seemed like an interesting thing to explore in the present day.
I felt compelled to continue with this work, and after a second residency in January 2015, I moved to Wassaic full-time, and stayed for two years. The opportunity to fully immerse myself in this place for a longer duration led, of course, to a deepening of the initial sense of connection that I felt, as well as an expanded understanding of the issues of history, place, and community that I had begun to explore in 2014. By August 2017, I was ready to take everything I had learned, and all the objects I had been collecting, and create an immersive installation in an abandoned barn in a field off of Wassaic-Amenia Road, just outside town. It was called the world was good once, and it was a pretty ambitious project, including a solar-powered light installation and an editioned book of drawings and text written by Dorian Rolston, an artist-in-residence at the time.
After that, I moved to Brooklyn. I felt ready — dedicated to my work, confident in my ability to sustain a studio practice, and bolstered by the hundreds of fellow artists I had met and connected with during my time in Wassaic. My practice has changed dramatically in response to this new environment and the constraints that the lifestyle and pace of the city demands. I had to learn to work faster, and to produce more boldly. There isn’t so much time to luxuriate over questions of meaning, and if I hadn’t had two years in Wassaic to develop a strong foundation of trust in my work and my process, I don’t think I would have been able to be as prolific living in New York as I have been. There’s also a certain spirit of permissiveness that the Wassaic Project is known for embracing in the curatorial choices they make, and I’ve taken inspiration from artists like Jeila Gueramian, Jen Catron & Paul Outlaw, and other WP OG’s who, in my view, are very brave and responsive, and put shit out there and kind of just go for it.
Installing The Reader in this year’s Wassaic Project summer exhibition is an exciting moment for me. I’m very proud of how my work has developed over these past 5 years, and Wassaic Project has supported me at every step of my journey.
Your studio work is primarily fiber-based and includes sculpture, drawing, needlepoint embroidery, participatory pieces, and installations. What thematic threads run through your work?
My output is pretty diverse, but there are layers of consistency that lend coherence to it all. The first is on the material level — I’m basically a dumpster-diver at heart, and most of the materials I work with are found or discarded. I really enjoy problem-solving and working within constraints, and materials are one of the facets of my work in which I prefer to “respond to,” rather than dictate. The use of found materials was much more overt in the work I made while living in Wassaic, but it is still happening. The cardboard and newspaper that I use for papier-mâché is all found on the street, and the needlepoint series developed in response to a huge cache of wool yarn, trimmings, and canvas that I found at a thrift stores. I want my work to be broadly accessible, and I think keeping the materials and techniques as basic as possible speaks to the idea that creativity and art are for everyone — that you don’t necessarily need an academic degree, or some elaborate understanding of the machinations of art history and art theory — in order to participate.
My work also consistently responds to place, both as I’m making it, and as it is installed/sited. For instance, since moving to Brooklyn, my work has shifted away from using found objects as an end in themselves, and towards the wholesale fabrication of an immersive, imagined environment. Obviously, living in the city, I don’t have the same sense of connectedness with the natural world that I did when I lived in Wassaic, and the work deals with the fact that what was once reality is now only possible in fantasy. My deepening interest in the occult, and adjacent rituals and practices reflects an urban approach to forging a sense of connectivity and purpose through a set of rituals and beliefs that, at least in part, are a substitute for that lost sense of connection that, for me, comes from spending lots of time in areas where humans are not the dominant influence.
In general, my work is about connection — the connection between humans and the natural environment, the places we call home, to each other, and to some sort-of spirit world or cosmos (whether natural or supernatural — and to me, that dichotomy is artificial). Sometimes I’m engaging with this theme on an intellectual level, as in the needlepoints, which attempt to ground an esoteric text by Rudolf Steiner about unseen spiritual realms into concrete, visual images. Other times it’s very personal, as in the mapping of interactions between objects, memories, and history that formed the crux of my studio practice in Wassaic. Participatory and performative works like The Reader are attempts to explore the possibilities for various modes of connection between the artist, the work, and the participant-viewer.
There is a storytelling and strong experiential aspect to many of your installations. You incorporate found objects and whimsical props in your wonderfully quirky and mysterious settings. You are also a production and prop designer, and a costume designer for film and theater. How does your studio practice intersect with your film and theater work?
I definitely think of my work as a form of participatory theater, and I’m always trying to figure out how to orchestrate a scenario in which the viewer becomes the performer. I’ve thought a lot about the desire for transformation that putting on a costume and playing a role engenders, and also about the possibilities of liberation from the self that these acts contain — their ancient origins in ritualized attempts to connect to, communicate with, or embody forces outside oneself.
The film and theatre projects I’ve worked on have provided opportunities for me to hone my ability to be responsive to a concept or narrative, to work within crazy temporal, budgetary, and logistical constraints, and, most importantly, to develop an appreciation for collaboration and teamwork. When it comes to my art, my natural tendency is to want to be in control. My projects in film and theatre opened me up to the advantages of working collaboratively with other makers and performers. More “hands on deck” allows for an expansion in the scale of projects, which is cool, but for me a less obvious advantage has been the alchemy that happens when different voices and perspectives and styles combine. Working with others means I have less control over the final outcome, but the first lesson I ever learned in working performatively is that the participant-viewer is always a wild card. No matter how much I try to envision and anticipate for the results of a given set-up, I never know in advance what the work is going to do once the viewer shows up. So acknowledging this, and even celebrating it by throwing other artists into the mix, has been a really interesting direction that I’ve been exploring.
Your current immersive installation, The Reader, is highly participatory and is enriched by your presence as the “reader” of the cards. How did you develop the idea for this installation and what do you hope the visitor takes away from the experience?
The Reader is the third and final iteration of a project that I’ve been working on since September 2018. It was first developed in response to a commission for a participatory work for a Tribeca Arts + Culture Night event, and then I showed it again at New Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. I tend to treat these theatrical, participatory works as a set of props that can be freely reconfigured to create a scenario that is tailored to the context in which they will be presented. Each time I show the work it is different, even if many of the elements and themes carry over. The Tribeca commission was focused on the interaction between The Reader and the participant, and the design of the space and the objects that I created to populate it were mostly a backdrop for this interaction. I collaborated with Burt Murder, a musician and performer who I met during my first residency in Wassaic. He composed some trippy new-age music for the space, and we both played roles and interacted with viewers to create this weird scenario at an upscale VIP art event. I was really interested in the interaction that takes place between The Reader and the querent, and was wondering what would happen if the setting for that exchange, which already has this rich set of aesthetic and symbolic signifiers built into it, was amplified and expanded on to be even weirder, more theatrical, and otherworldly.
When the opportunity to reprise the work in a gallery setting came up, I decided to alter the format to focus on the exterior of the space. The gallery didn’t have open hours, so I thought the best way to have as many people as possible experience the work directly was to transform the commercial storefront from a gallery into an occult shop. The piece insinuated itself into the neighborhood streetscape, which led to an interesting tension between fact and fiction, because at first glance, it really looked like an occult shop had opened up where the gallery had been, and you had to get close and really look in the windows to see that everything was made of fabric and papier-mâché, and was kind-of a goofy fake version of the typical display you’d see in the windows of this kind of store. For the opening event, I had a friend who is a professional intuitive wear The Reader costume and give readings in a back room, and the whole Burt Murder band came down and played a set in the space, wearing costumes that I created in collaboration with two other artists I like to work with.
The version of the installation that I created for the Wassaic summer exhibition will be on view for four months. I’ll be playing the role of The Reader at the opening, but beyond that, I’ve had to think through how to facilitate an interactive experience for the viewer when there aren’t any performers present to initiate that process. I ended up producing a printed edition of the watercolor-painted divination cards I made for the Tribeca event, and writing up some instructions for how to use them. The cards and instructions are in the space, which I hope people will find welcoming, and choose to spend some time in. I love that it’s situated over the side porch of the mill, where all the birds roost. There is a hole in the floor, so there’s a nice breeze in there, and all day long you can hear the birds calling and doing their thing right below you.
There’s an inherent power dynamic in giving and receiving readings. The assumption is that The Reader has access to information that the querent does not, but I don’t know if I actually believe this to be true. I think there are many ways of knowing, and that we all have access to a lot more information and truth than we give ourselves credit for. Asking the viewer to take on the role of The Reader, and demystifying the process of using the cards is meant to be an empowering gesture, affirming that we all have the ability to connect with others and with our own higher selves. Learning to read with cards is, for most people, a process of learning to trust our own instincts and intuition, and that is something that I hope visitors take away from their experience with this piece.