How did the ribbons and the housecoats come about?
I’ll start with the housecoats. My maternal grandmother who taught me to quilt and sew spent her days cooking, baking, gardening, cleaning, and raising three children. She often wore housecoats that I viewed as a kind of homemaker workwear — she had this closet of them and would offer them to me to wear when I was at her house. She didn’t work outside the home, but would sometimes take jobs sewing for people in her community. She didn't get to further her education beyond eighth grade because only boys went to high school. That was the life she lived.
So I started thinking about her life and about housecoats a year and a half ago, when I had my daughter, because you're very homebound after you have a child. I tried a couple different ways of working through this idea that were almost like quilts of housecoats, but those did not pan out. Sometimes you're like, Oh, I just spent months making this work. And it's terrible. I don't like it. So I scratched that.
Say more? Why did you scratch them?
I went down this thought process that I think a lot of artists working with craft mediums grapple with, about the blurred, made-up line of craft and art. My sisters and I were all expecting babies, and I started making quilts for them from scraps in my studio. I really enjoyed the meditative and creative process of quilting, but as I was making these quilts, I was like, Oh, this is not my work. This is craft. This is a quilt. This is a functional object. But then I was like, Why is this not my work, though? Is it because they have less of a concept? It's just decorative. Is it because they’re functional? Is it because quilting is women's work traditionally? If I were a painter, these quilts would be called studies, and there’d be no question they were quote-unquote art because they’d be on a canvas.
Anyway, at this point, I knew I wanted to make work using the imagery of a housecoat, and since these ideas were swimming around in my head, I tried to make a quilt version with a housecoat image relief and then stretch them onto a canvas stretcher to read as a painting. But I just really didn't like what they looked like. It took a long time to reach that point of, Just make a housecoat.
How do you know when you've given an idea enough time and it's time to switch directions like that?
When it's no longer fun to make. When you feel like you're mass producing your own work.
Like, my Warm Gun series, for example. I made a lot of guns. That was a very ongoing body of work, and it gets shown a lot. But I reached a point where I was like, I'm not learning from making this. But with this housecoat, I've been so excited to come to the studio and work on it. That’s how you should always feel. You should always be obsessed with the work that you're making, and if you no longer feel that, it's time to make something else.
How did the ribbons come about, then?
I worked on a quilt with my same grandmother I mentioned earlier when I was in college that won first prize at the Letcher County Homemakers Club. I kept the blue ribbon we received and had it framed a few years ago, and always thought about it in relation to my work. And so, a few months ago, I started using that first place ribbon as a spin-off for this series — thinking about what it means to be a homemaker, about how there's a lot of invisible labor that goes into raising a child that women, mostly, bear the responsibility of. The pandemic really drove this concept home for me since I, like everyone else, was homebound. So I created these first place ribbons for these menial tasks — baking, washing dishes, cooking — as a way to say, “Hey, you're doing a good job, you get first place,” to congratulate that unsung labor.
But also, there's this aspect of competitiveness, of putting out this facade of doing it all. Like, I'm making bread, I’m being an artist, I'm winning at life — whatever. So they’re also poking fun a little bit at both that need to feel recognized and that need to appear to be doing it all. I’ve also been thinking about how, in a lot of ways, I'm living a similar life to my grandmother at this moment — I'm spending my days quilting and sewing, mothering a child, baking and cleaning — but I’ve turned what she did out of necessity and without any real choice into this career path. I sell this stuff, I show it. That wasn’t an option for her, and that's not lost on me. It’s because women in between my grandmother and myself have fought for more equality — yet here we are, in this moment where so many women are losing jobs because of the pandemic, that there’s this fear of taking a giant step back.
Can you talk about why you chose to put the housecoat and the ribbons in particular right next to each other in the install upstairs?
All of those ribbons are hinting at this invisible labor and domestic work, so I wanted them to be shown with this oversized housecoat that’s thinking about this constant pressure to put on different identities as a woman. I want the housecoats to feel larger-than-life, like they would consume a person, and then add this tongue-in-cheek, congratulatory, “You're the number one dishwasher!”
Also, when you're entering that space, there's a giant gold flag that's draped over what could be read as a coffin. When we hung the show, Biden hadn’t been elected yet — so to me, this reclining, bloated, drooping flag acts as an introduction to the state of the country, referencing the fact that here we are in the midst of a global pandemic, with a president who has not made swift enough decisions that could have resulted in more lives being saved. Now it can also be read as the death of Trump’s presidency.
To back up a little bit, a few minutes ago you gestured towards a point in time where you weren't necessarily comfortable calling the quilts art — how did those questions resolve themselves over time for you?
Well, I don't know if that's been resolved. I'm still grappling with where these quilts fit into my work as a whole. To me, quilts are very much the epitome of American domesticity, especially with the history that I have with quilts being my first introduction into making all this work. And because I made most of the quilts hanging in this exhibition during the pandemic, this anxiety of needing to feel like I’m doing something went into the physical making of those pieces too, which is why I was excited to display them in this context. I’ve realized more recently that I use quilts as a mental break between more thought-heavy works, while simultaneously keeping my hands busy.
How do the eagles fit in?
I use a lot of Americana paraphernalia and imagery in my work, and these eagles are no exception. I found statuettes that are usually realistic-looking eagles one would buy for a desk or display on a mantle, or something I would see walking around my neighborhood in Queens outside someone’s home or on a gate. They’re these objects that are serious and prideful, but I then bedazzle them with gold spray paint and glitter, and paint their talons with hot pink nail polish — stripping or almost mocking their power.
In the context of this show, they’re sprinkled throughout the room where my quilts are hanging, so they're kind of acting as guardians of these domestic products. Yet they look slightly ridiculous and have these painted eyes with dark eyeliner that make them look sort of weary. I didn’t think about this at install, but now I’m thinking about the eagles as these symbols of our government, comically watching over these laborious domestic products in the midst of a global discussion about restructuring workplaces that were built without the consideration of women.
I mean, to broaden this out a bit, when we talked a couple years ago while you were in residence, you used the phrase “weird, masculine energy” in describing what you explore in your work. That phrase has stuck with me since then, and I admire the way that your work is curious about that energy without getting mired in it. It takes it as seriously as it deserves to be taken, but not more seriously.
Which is to say: how has your relationship to that weird, masculine energy changed over time, if at all? I suppose I'm thinking about how this show — with the quilts, and the ribbons, and the housecoat — isn't about masculinity nearly as much as when I was in your studio a couple years ago, when you were working on the eagles, your Alt Caps series, and Warm Guns series. That energy feels a lot more deflected. The eagles feel lonelier.
I've been thinking a lot about the Alt Caps pieces in the past week because that weird, masculine energy has gotten us to where we are now. Those were comments taken from a Glenn Beck article about me and my work — this intense rhetoric that was made okay by our president, and here we are. As we talk, the vote is happening to impeach him for inciting riots on our Capitol. It’s kind of wild.
So I've been trying to figure out, just as an American, how people end up being so frustrated and lost that they storm the Capitol building, or what makes people so upset that they write comments telling me I should kill myself for making soft guns. I think what it comes down to is: if your identity or your way of life feel threatened, then you're gonna lash out. You feel like you need to protect it. I try not to write off another group of people because they don't believe in what I believe in. But I've been questioning that a lot this week. How can you not hold people accountable, right? How can you try to get on the same page or reconcile? It’s not just, Let's all just get along! You know?
Anyway — I think that you can have these conversations through art that are sometimes hard to have otherwise. Because my work isn’t meant to say “guns are bad” or “patriotism is bad.” I’m more taking these objects that are symbolic to our country and kind of mocking or questioning their weird dude energy by using these traditionally feminine techniques to alter them in some way. Like, I say a lot: “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” I try to touch on these issues that are worrisome to society and to our country, but through this lens of humor and comfort that eases people into it.
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 [Warm Gun]. 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 [Bloated Flags]. 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 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?
Natalie Baxter (b. 1985, Lexington, Kentucky) explores concepts of place-identity, nostalgic Americana, and gender stereotypes through sculptures that playfully push controversial issues. Natalie received her MFA from the University of Kentucky in 2012 and a BA in Fine Art from the University of the South in Sewanee, TN in 2007. Her work has been exhibited in galleries and museums internationally with recent shows at Intersect SOFA Chicago with Elijah Wheat Showroom (Newburgh, NY), Birmingham Museum of Art (Birmingham, AL), Spring/Break Art Show with Gloria’s (New York, NY), Material Art Fair with Beverly’s (Mexico City, MX), Institute 193 (Lexington, KY), Yale University (New Haven, CT), and Brandeis University (Waltham, MA). She has been an artist in residency at the Wassaic Project, a fellowship recipient at the Vermont Studio Center, and twice awarded the Queens Art Fund Grant. Press for Baxter’s work includes, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Hyperallergic, The Guardian, and Bomb Magazine.