Monday, June 6, 2016

An interview with Christina Bothwell


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Sometimes I find it difficult to articulate my feelings about certain artists' work into written words. I'm sure I've mentioned this before around here, about how I'm unable to write about Max Ernst. If he were alive today, I would struggle with interviewing him, I would struggle with writing an introduction to said interview. ( Perhaps part of my obsession with the surrealist time period is that it's in the past, that  all the surrealists are long dead, that I will never be a part of it, despite all my longing )

I have struggled in a similar way in the writing of this introduction. Part of this I am sure is due to my being out of practice writing more thoughtfully about art, & part of my hesitation may also have to do with how shipwrecked I feel in my new city. But mostly I think it is because there are some artists I feel I may never be able to successfully write about, because their work conjures more of a physical  feeling inside me I can't put to words. A lot of art does both for me, and as a writer, I often think and react and feel with words....but sometimes I choke. Christina Bothwell has proven to be one of those artists. This may be because I never imagined our 'paths would cross' but social media has its peculiar ways and here I am, with the incredible opportunity to ask an artist I have admired for years some questions about her work and her process. 

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One of the things that initially drew me to your work ( aside from the subject matter ) was your use of cast glass. The only other time cast glass work has struck me is Lalique’s, who was creating jewelry and perfume bottles and other ‘functional’ pieces of art at least a hundred years ago. I’ve read that you are self-taught, and aside from a seminar in which you learned the basics of glass casting, you’ve mostly figure it out on your own. Even though I understand the lost wax process of metal casting intimately, cast glasswork still seems to be this sort of fascinating mystery. Can you describe what kept you working with it & how you feel it transformed your narrative arc ? Your work previously seemed to be made of cement / exclusively clay, which physically and visually makes me think of heft and weight. While glass is still weighty, there still seems to be an lighter quality to it, perhaps because it transmits light. I like this evolution of your work.


I am not actually self taught as an artist.. I went to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts for painting. After art school I moved to Manhattan where I lived for around ten years, but the art I made then was definitely limited by the size of my apartment. For years I made tiny paintings on rusted lids of cans. It was only after I moved to rural PA when I found an old ceramic kiln at an auction (ten dollars!!!), that I began working with sculpture. Even though I had been unable to find galleries willing to show my work during the time I lived in NYC, after I moved to Pennsylvania and began working with clay I got into a gallery almost immediately... and had some success, mostly because the actress Demi Moore happened to walk by the gallery the day before my opening and bought most of my ceramic sculptures from my first show. But after a few years of making pit-fired clay/assemblage pieces, I began feeling boxed in by the limitations of ceramics. While I was drawn to color, using ceramic glazes made my work look garish and cartoonish, and I started yearning to express more through the work.. but had no idea how. I finally shut down completely and found myself unable to work anymore at all. Which was very scary. In a panic attempt to try and jumpstart my creativity, I took a five day glass casting class at Corning, expecting nothing. To my delight and surprise, I realized that glass can do all the things that clay can, but in addition glass transmits light. After the workshop I went home and then spent the next few years trying to figure out how to incorporate glass into my pieces... It was really hard, as I basically had no clue what I was doing. But the potential to express something that was more ethereal than I had ever been able to achieve with just ceramic, kept me going.


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The other startling aspect of your work is how a lot of the bodies are also vessels. The women hold babies in their glass skins, while babies hold their ‘old souls’ & fish hold women.... On the outer glass bodies, you sometimes include ‘tattoos’. This tension between inner and outer landscapes of the psyche and individual is further heightened, for me anyway, with the inclusion of the clay limbs and faces. These lack the ‘light bearing’ nature of the glass anatomies and seem more somber, gravestone like, and often invoke feelings of death. I imagine viewers may find this marriage ‘uncanny.’ This line from my personal research felt applicable “ The uncanny entails another thinking of beginning: the beginning is already haunted. The uncanny is ghostly. It is concerned with the strange, weird and mysterious, with a flickering sense of something supernatural."

 When I read what you just wrote, I had an actual AhHa moment... I finally understood why people find my work disturbing! Over the years I have been accused repeatedly of making deliberately disturbing work, which has never been my intention. I have always only been trying to express the things that interest me- the cycle of life, reproduction, our spirit, and our soul purpose... I think that all my work is pretty much autobiographical. I never set out to make a piece based on any actual experience, but later in hindsight when I look at work I have made, I am immediately able to see the correlation to my life.

When I was very small, I often had surreal, spiritual experiences, and perceptions that didn't match what other people seemed to experience. Looking back on it, I see that my perceptual system was somewhat skewed, especially compared to the rest of my family. For one thing, I could tell when someone was going to die... It was the most natural thing in the world, and I thought everyone was aware of this phenomena as well... I would often ask people at my parents' parties when THEY were going to die... Even as a very small child I believed we chose the time we were born, and also the time we died. This caused my ultra conservative father no end of shame and embarrassment... Both my parents thought I told tales and lied all the time in order to get attention, and eventually any time I was introduced to a new friend of theirs, an explanation would be given that I wasn't to be trusted at all, that I never told the truth.. In my head I was scrupulously honest, but I wasn't perceived as such. I also seemed to repeatedly encounter strange people and situations, pedophile school bus drivers, adult figures who were mentally ill and had visions, people who lived outside the norm in their interior world. This was so commonplace in my childhood that it felt normal, just how the world was... and even though my life was never in acute danger, it created this feeling within me that life was scary and unpredictable... that things which appeared safe on the surface, could change on a dime. I learned to retreat into a world of daydreams and fairy tales, I escaped my surroundings by writing stories and drawing (we had no television while I was growing up). My husband says that my childhood was like a field of flowers in a mine field, that pretty much sums it up.

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To continue on the use the image of the chrysalises or vessel, your figures appear to be in liminal states, transforming, becoming something, more, something ‘other’. As women, our bodies are biologically created to sustain life, and to me, this sharing of the body always seemed strange, invasive somehow. Can you speak to this ?

I guess that because of my early obsession with death, I gravitated toward trying to figure out the answers to why we are here. It never made sense to me that our whole purpose is just to live, have a job, fall in love, have babies, and then grow old and die. Because of my early spiritual experiences, I was drawn to trying to find the truth, to try and discern our spiritual purpose. Seen in that context, it made sense to me that our bodies are just containers for something much larger, something larger that lies beyond our understanding. When I started making the figures beneath the surface of the glass (seen through the glass to the inside of the torsos), I was trying to express the soul, the interior beingness the idea that we are all more than just what is seen on the surface. I had never planned on having children- I think if having a child hasn't happened by the time someone is 40, there is a lot of ambivalence, which was certainly the case with me. But when I finally was pregnant with my daughter Sophie, it was the strangest and most mystifying experience of all to me. I had a tangible recognition that it was the only time I would ever have more than one heart beating in my body! I was nervous that I might not be able to love my child after she was born, but then so many things went wrong with her actual birth- she died and had no heartbeat for almost twenty minutes, and after being revived we were told she probably wouldn't make it and if she did she would be severely handicapped... Her birth was very joyful to me but also terrifying, as I was consciously aware that life could be given or taken away in the blink of an eye. It took me a long time to process the experience of my daughter's birth, and I certainly never planned on having additional children. The whole thing had been way too scary to want to repeat, and I was pretty sure I was too old for the possibility anyway. (then I gave birth to twins four years later, but that is another story!)

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I’ve also read that childhood memories/states of mind inform your work. I was specifically drawn to you saying “Our childhoods are so short-lived in the overall scheme of things, but they have such an influence throughout adulthood” There is an innocence and a vulnerability both in material (glass) and in the form of your figures (often children or women ‘carrying ‘ children), can you speak more of this ? Has having children of your own effected your work ?


I definitely think that even if we can't remember a lot of our childhoods, there is part of us that never forgets, either. I still carry my child-self with me, and it sometimes pops up at the most inopportune times! As for having children, it probably was the most amazing experience I ever had. I don't know if was due to all the hormones or what- but for a year after having Sophie, and then again after having Ellis and Violet, I found myself in a prolonged state that seemed to last for almost a year... of feeling an almost unbearable sense of lovingness toward everyone. I felt that I was a link in a long chain of mothers throughout history, that we were all linked to one another, and to everyone on the planet. It was a very gentle, and tender sort of awareness... It was almost as if every adult and elderly person had superimposed over their faces, the babies that they had once been.. We have all had mothers, and we have all been children, I remember feeling, over and over again. I think that having children has definitely affected my work.. My children are such complete, whole, beings.. and their innocence and their individual sense of integrity is so pure.. I want to keep that intact for them, I want to protect that quality within them, to shield them from the pain of life so that their innocence doesn't erode... I also want to express and capture that quality in my figures. That innocence.

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The range of what goes into your work is so impressive to me. I watched the video on your site where you alternate between labor-intensive actions such as chiseling, burning, scrapping etc and then there are the more tender moments where you are sculpting and painting. Does your process influence your work or do you already have an idea mapped out ?

Most of the time I already have my ideas mapped out... I get ideas (mostly in dreams) and have to jot down a rough sketch in my sketchpad right away or else like dreams, the ideas dissipate, sometimes almost immediately. My process does influence my work, mostly because a lot of working with glass is way beyond me. Recently I have been trying to make life sized pieces, and basically I am learning as I go along. Sometimes the finished piece looks completely different from the initial sketch, although I continually refer to the sketches as I work, for inspiration.

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I’m also a fan of your older work and your continued use of ‘found objects’, doll arms, skirt hoops, clawed stool legs, wire cages etc. Can you talk about this inclusion of ‘collage’ in your work ? For me, using objects that already have a history makes me feel like I am tethering my ideas ( myself ) to the beauty of the past. Maybe it is somewhat similar for you?

I never thought of myself as using collage! Another ah ha moment! I love collage artists, most of the people I follow on instagram are brilliant collage artists. For me, using found objects in the work, (and also including the element of ceramics), is like having syncopation in jazz music. I need to break up the sameness of the glass with other elements. I don't actually like most glass art... I think that too much glass in my pieces makes the work somewhat monotonous and relentless...too impersonal, or cold. I do like the feeling of someone else's personal history being incorporated into my pieces, which is something the little doll parts and found objects impart. When I was a child, all our family outings were to either used bookstores, or antique flea markets. So I am still drawn to Old Stuff... it has a nostalgic feel to me that reminds me of those happy times from my childhood.

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Your husband is also an artist, can you talk about this effects your work and your working process? For me it is so nice to have a sounding board in another artist who’s work and vision I trust and respect.

Robert and I met at art camp when we were teenagers. I always knew him in the context of making art. We didn't see each other for fifteen years before we met up again in Manhattan as adults, but when we connected again, it was immediately apparent that he was someone who "got" me, I didn't have to explain my aesthetic, or my idiosyncrasies to him, he understood me because of his own artistic orientation. Robert has helped me enormously with my work... I probably couldn't do what I do, if not for him. He studied ceramics in college, and it was he who encouraged me to get that old kiln and try working with clay, and he taught me the basics of how to work with ceramics. He still programs all my glass firings for me, and lifts my giant molds, and sometimes even cold works my pieces. And he is my photographer! I am so lucky! Best of all, he can clearly see things that don't work, in my pieces. When he isn't around, I have to ask a little mental Robert doll on my shoulder if something needs to be altered in the work. His work inspires me and makes me think outside my own mental space, as well. Of course, being married to another artist means our income vacillates wildly, and we often don't have synchronistic successes... But I love that our children understand that we are following our dream, so to speak, and it allows that possibility for them someday, in their own lives (hopefully).

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Dreams / speculative narratives seem to play an important role in your work. Both of these ideas either relate to what I was mentioning earlier about ‘the uncanny’ or in the case of dreams, are so personal that it's hard to describe them to another person, yet in visual form, seem to carry a universal resonance. Do you dream ? How important is your dream life to your work?

 I would have to say that dreams are extremely important in both my work, and in my life. All my life I have dreamed about events that were going to take place in my life, and in the case of my twins, I even had a lucid, out of body experience where I met them (when I was only a few days pregnant, I didn't even know I was going to have a boy and a girl,) and in the dream they were older than me, grown... They said they came to me because it was very important to all of us, that I relax and not be so fearful.. They spoke about love outside of time, and explained that we had loved each other forever. (the woman asked me if I remembered them from before, and I said, No! I am really bad at that!) After the dream I was a lot less afraid.. I had so much fear when I found out I was going to have twins, partially because of Sophie's birth, but also I was afraid I would never be able to make art again if I was caring for three children.. The dream definitely helped dissipate the fear... I also had a dream where I was told I was going to give birth again... this was three years after Sophie and a year and a half before I found I was expecting my twins, and I had to wake Robert up and tell him about this dream immediately.. and Robert, knowing me, said wearily, "oh god..." because he knows me.. My favorite dreams are where I am in a museum and I am seeing incredible pieces... similar in theme to mine but way better than my pieces... and then when I wake up I realize slowly, hey, if this is MY dream, then I can make these pieces and it won't even be stealing!


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In your older work you explored the visual idea of conjoined twins and in your newer works, there is still the theme of ‘doubling’ or ‘the other’ being present. I know the idea of the soul is an important theme in your work, can you talk about how these two ideas correlate?

I have always been obsessed with twins. For years before I had my own twins, I made pieces of women pregnant with twins (my husband said that our twins were a result of too much creative visualization on my part) And as for conjoined twins, there are two souls inhabiting one body! What a great argument for immortality, or continuation of the soul! I first became aware of conjoined twins through the Mutter Museum. Back when I was in art school, it was a very tiny, almost modest museum, and anyone could just walk in and go into the basement and draw the specimens in jars. Which I did, several times a week, for years. I was often the only person in the dark, catacomb like basement lined with wooden bookshelves and creaky wooden floors, surrounded by benign, floating creatures. I don't really know why I was so drawn to medical oddities... I think because I grew up identifying with "other", I somehow related to these babies.

As for the idea of the soul being an important theme in my work, and also twins, the best story I can tell you is one that involved a commission I did two years ago for a lovely woman I met. This story really captures what my work is all about, and what really lights me up, creatively. This woman approached me at an art fair, and by way of introduction she said that she understood that I had twins, and she wanted to introduce herself, saying that she was an identical twin, her husband is an identical twin, and her identical twin was married to her husband's identical twin. Then she went on to say that her twin, whom she loved more than any other person in the world, had died the previous year, and she hoped I would make a piece of the two of them. She emailed me several photographs of her and her twin as children, in little dresses. Later that day she came up to me and said she wanted to tell me a story. She said that six months after her sister died, she and her husband bought a vacation home in New Hampshire. The moving truck unloaded all the furniture in the house although the electricity was not yet hooked up, and she stayed in the dark house while her husband went back to NYC to his job. It was at night and completely dark in the house, and she lay on a bed upstairs, wondering how long it would take if she were to stop eating. She was so consumed with grief, she no longer wanted to live. While she lay there in the dark, she became aware of footsteps downstairs beneath her room. She felt panicked for a moment, realizing that someone had seen the moving truck and was probably there to rob the house. "Good", she thought, "I hope they kill me while they're at it". The footsteps continued across the floor, then she heard them continue on the steps leading up to the room where she lay on the bed in the dark room. Then she heard the doorknob turn, and the footsteps approached the bed where she lay. Then, she smelled her sister... and her sister climbed on the bed behind her, and lay spooning her, the way she always had comforted her when she was alive. She told me, "I opened my eyes then, and the previously dark room was filled with blinding light". Gradually her sister's presence faded, until she could only feel the pressure of her sister's hand on her shoulder. After that experience, she found that she was able to go on. I chose to make my piece about that experience for her, a piece titled, Tethered to My Heart.


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Also while viewing your video and reading about you, I noticed that you live in a rural area. Can you talk about how your environment effects your process? There certainly seems to be a connection to nature and animals in your work, do you feel that you’d be able to create the same work in the city ? What is it about living in a rural area that appeals to you? Your studio also seems teeming with objects, can you talk about what is important for you to have around you while working ?

I really benefit from living in nature. I probably have ADHD, total strangers ask me if I do (repeatedly), and when I lived in cities I was often so jangled and overstimulated that I lost touch of who I was. Nature grounds me, and puts me in a zen like quality that allows me to focus on my work the best. My studio embarrasses me a little. I definitely like to collect weird stuff. I tend to collect anything that resonates with me, without really analyzing what or why.

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Do you imagine that all of your work inhabits the same world or are there new worlds for each body of work? Do you imagine there being a dialogue between your figures, a kind of shared dream or language ?


That is a really interesting question! I never thought about it before, but now I am going to think about it a lot! I can't answer that question, because it is a totally new thought in my head... I will have to get back to you about it.

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At one point or another it seems as artists, we get blocked. Can you talk about how you overcome blocks to get back to work ?

I really don't enjoy being blocked creatively. When it happens I always panic. But one advantage to getting older is that I can remember all the previous times I have been blocked, and how I always seem to move past it. Every time I find myself unable to work (because the act of making art has lost its magnetics), I remind myself that during that time of inactivity my work is still growing... like, what happens when an egg incubates. The egg sits there and it looks as if nothing is happening for weeks and weeks, but then the egg hatches and there is a brand new chick! In other words, a lot is still happening beneath the surface!

 What usually works for me in terms of overcoming blocks, is to do something different to stimulate my creativity. I like taking a trip to a city and going to museums, eating really good ethnic food (something unavailable where i live, sadly), exploring used bookstores or unfamiliar natural settings and national state parks... that sort of thing. And Instagram is the best- there are so many incredible artists out there to be inspired by! I have only been on Instagram for the past few months, but there have been many nights I have been unable to sleep, because of some amazing artist I have discovered! We are definitely living in a Renaissance time of great artists.

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Can you share any lasting inspirations ? Music or books that you feel have a kinship to your work? 

One snowy day in my twenties, I found myself lost in lower Manhattan during a freak snow storm...It was the kind of blizzard where there is no visibility beyond a foot or so... I stumbled into a tiny little gallery, which was empty (of people). The most beautiful, pure, raw, clay figures of women and monkeys hung on the walls...They were unglazed, just raw fired clay, and there were holes in the ceramics and cracks, but they were just perfect. I had never heard of the artist Daisy Youngblood before that moment, but as I stood there looking at her pieces, I was consumed with a lust to own one... How could I buy one... They were only about five hundred dollars, but I barely had the money to pay my rent each month.. it was impossible... I had so much regret that I couldn't buy one of her pieces.. But the memory of that work stayed with me, and I think it was because of Daisy Youngblood that I turned eventually to sculpture. I think I wanted to capture something of the feeling I had when I saw her work. Anyway, her work definitely resonated more than any other artist I had ever seen, then , or now. I still look her work up on line from time to time and every time I do, I sigh with peace and contentment.. Her work just touches me.


Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Sacred Union

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I've written about Agostino Arrivabene before, here and here, and his work still has a somewhat preternatural hold on me. Perhaps it's because he uses some of the same obsessions in his work that I use in my own: Eleusinian Mysteries ( The rituals performed to honor the phases of Demeter &Persephone), Alchemy, Psychological Alchemy, amongst others, as well as how he considers his paintings to be a "room of curiosities" a kinship I feel in regards to my own work.... strange objects culled from personal travels: whether these sojourns have been to other countries/ cultures, or whilst diving into the shadow self, emerging with a jar filled with opposites: light & dark. 

There is so much below the surface of his works that snare me... &; then there are the works themselves, created using ancient techniques. Agostino actually grinds raw pigments to make his own paint and uses the outmoded technique of mischtechnik ( layers of egg tempera mixed with oil paint in this case ) to create luminous, translucent layers. The surfaces of his work have this amazingly visceral quality that is hard to decipher in photographs, something I feel adds to the physical presence of the work as an object.  

The title of this new body of work is 'Hierogamy', which opens on March 3rd in NYC at Cara Gallery,  has roots in Alchemy as well as in ancient fertility rituals in the Middle East, Greece, India etc. In these rituals, the 'sacred marriage' is either a symbolic or sexual union between a man and a woman as stand ins for the God & Goddess. In these rituals, the pair are 'purified', a feats is had, and then the union takes place in nocturnal secret. The next day, celebrations for the union "which guarantees the fertility of the land, the prosperity of the community, and the continuation of the cosmos" occur. (1) In Alchemical terms, "Hierogamy recalls the Alchemic myth of the Hermaphrodite, namely the being that encapsulates all, an entity that encompasses everything."(2) The union between the sacred opposites of male and female in alchemy is essentially the ultimate phase of the work, known as the 'chymical wedding' resulting in 'the philosopher's stone.'

Certainly there is a lot of transformation going on in Agostino's work, a merging with nature, a merging with another to produce transformation, conjured with regards to both application and dark beauty. I'm excited to see this body of work in person.



1. Footnote source. 
2. Footnote source. 

Sunday, November 29, 2015

the ether.

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Patti Smith's room at the Chelsea Hotel

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In her new book, M Train, Patti Smith discusses the loss of a jacket, a friend's jacket that she coveted and was then gifted by said friend. She wore it for a time, ( it most likely became a kind of talisman to her ) and then it was lost, inexplicably.  I felt this loss. As the reader, you 'watch' her searching for it, can relate to the loss of a beloved object, imbued with sentiment, memory, a kind of magic that is synthesized when we wear something close to our skin on a daily basis. ( I feel very much this way about jewels, especially)

Throughout the course of the book, Patti loses many other objects, places and people. She loses an envelope filled with polaroids of Sylvia Plath's grave; we learn that she considers her polaroids to be a kind of 'string of rosaries', evidence that she was somewhere, that she exists. She leaves an olde polaroid camera on a bench. Her beach side bungalow is nearly entirely destroyed during Hurricane Sandy. She loses a Murakami book filled with personal notes. She loses the cafe she sat at daily in her solitary revelry, when the owner decides to close up shop. She loses her friends, her husband, her brother. While each loss may have varying degrees of effect on her, and on us as the reader, ultimately it made me a bit anxious for her. &, for myself, somehow.

In pale comparison, at the same time I was devouring her book, I would go on to ( temporarily) lose a tote bag filled with books, two of which, ironically, were other books of Patti's waiting to be read, and a few other out of prints on Surrealism I had amassed after spending hours in the stacks at Strand books. I also thought I lost a beloved hand knit cardigan. It's vintage and chunky and is falling apart a bit at the neckline, but it's one of the things I live in in the winter. I recovered both things after much searching with near surety that they were lost to the same ether that Patti's jacket is lost within. I am not usually absent minded with objects; I felt spelled by the book. As if I had adopted either her bad luck or her dreamer's carelessness. It was a curious feeling, and thankfully, the spell lifted.

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These temporary loses led me to weird tangents of thoughts on objects. I own a lot of 'things', I've spent a life time collecting personal debris that I have knitted and built up around me in my loft. ( I inherited this obsession with collecting from my grandmother, who I also inherited my penchant for winged eyeliner from, & also, perhaps more poignantly, from my father; memories of trash picking with him as a kid late at night are still so vivid ) I've filled up my solitary loft life with books, carefully articulated skeletons and skulls under bell jars that collect veils of dust from living in high-ceilinged rooms, moldering lace dresses with tiny rows of hook buttons, old brass candlestick holders in the shape of cobras smothered in layers of black wax, a flat file drawer filled with ghosts; tin types and cabinet cards lost to the sea of time and ashore within my possession, locks of hair terminated in moth eaten ribbons, . . . this strange list goes on and on. This list, these objects, also make up what I consider to be a connection to the past & I know this is the sort of list that kindreds also may hold folded in an inner pocket. This is how I choose to be seen I think, behind the beauty and grotesque natures of the objects I have gathered up over the course of my 34 years of life. This collecting obsession has caused me trouble; more than one X has practiced a kind of reactionary measured cruelty to my weird needs.

See also: More than one X has complained about my all black ( mismatched blacks at that) wardrobe, my desire for olde couches, my inability to eat vegetables, my obsession with filling every possible bit of wall space with artwork, my vampire hours & so forth. In reaction to their reactions, I enjoy living alone these days.

See also: Symptoms on living with a black hole, ever widening inside your body . . .

iii.

Talismans make up much of my daily thoughts, I obsessively sketch in my notebook* ideas for new jewels, micro fictions I hope to one day publish. I imbue scraps of paper with my lover's handwriting on it with intense sentiment, I feel I could write my best work on an antique writing desk from the 1800's that is so tall, it may only ever fit in my loft and that I had to burn sage around for a month once I had it in my possession for fear of antique New Orleans' ghosts being attached to it since it was culled from down south. I run my fingers over the spines of my book when I'm sad.

When Patti's favorite cafe closed down, the owner gifted her the table and chairs she spent countless hours sitting at. He even offered to help her carry them over to her apartment. I like this idea. The transplanted object, both losing and gaining context, but still cradling Patti's books, her pens, her hands. Still a locus of creating, a liminal space she perfumed with her thoughts.

I'm currently living in a kind of transitory life. My lover lives in the Mid-West where the cold strangles you, where birds of prey fly freely, where the color of the ground mirrors the color of the sky when it snows and the line of the horizon is nearly indecipherable. I live on the East Coast where across the street from me, a warehouse is clothed in spray paint, where glass glitters in the streets, where plastic bags get snared in metal fences, where people are endless . . . . Being without my objects, my psychic armor, my own locus of creating and inspiration has caused a kind of displacement, and I try to find my new context. I think of what my own 'string of rosaries' may be; my notebooks, the small collection of books I have on the NoCoast, the pieces of jewelry I made for myself that I wear for protection and luck.


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Patti Smith's loft space on 23rd street 

* or, 'lint collecting'

Saturday, September 5, 2015

At Night: Lisa Ciccarello


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My tumultuous affair with poetry began in high school (where it does for most melodramatic folk) when I first stumbled upon the confessional, suicidal poets Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Admittedly, it was the fact that they had both caused their own ends that drew me to their work, but over time, these tragedies faded into the background, allowing their visceral, beautiful/grotesque & firercely raw poems to burn inside me. I wanted to be one of these women; I was already haunted by death in the romantic way young, sensitive people are often inflicted with. I wanted to write a small thing that took up barely a full page but that could sear a reader by the images conjured, by the uncanny use of normal words. I didn't succeed at poetry, but I wrote my undergrad thesis on Anne's work the same year I tattooed her initials inside my 'writing' wrist. I felt her ghost would linger if I gave my skin the power of her name.

Anne's book over time has become a sacred text to me as a writer. I always turn to her poems when in despair. My reading tastes, like everyone's have changed over time and after reading experimental garbage as well as being introduced to writers I still read such as Gary Lutz & Brian Evenson in graduate school, poetry fell from my reading habits. I returned to poetry this year after I attended AWP for the first time since it seemingly magically coincided with one of my trips out here to the Mid-West. I had known about Black Ocean Books vaguely as I had already owned a book by poet Zachary Schomburg, so I was happy when I stumbled upon their booth in a vast sea of presses I knew nothing about. 

Admittedly, when I'm 'cold' searching for a book in a store, I'm often drawn to their covers unless looking for something specific. Lisa's cover art drew me instantly, 'At Night' has a strange symbol akin to a voodoo veve, which are beautifully drawn symbols that are sacred to the voodoo religion and are used in ritual as representations of the loa, or the spirits that are the intermediaries between realms. These symbols, when used in ritual, act as astral beacons, drawing these spirits down to where the symbol is being used. Though I don't know much about voodoo, several trips to New Orleans have taught me a little about these symbols, as well as a deep respect for them....(or perhaps, in not using them. Many people get these designs tattooed on them because they are indeed intricate and beautiful (yikes) )

 I digress. The symbol on Lisa's book is not a reve, and only vaguely resembles one, as it also vaguely resembles other magical and old symbols.  The book itself has a butter soft cover that strangely makes it feel almost made of baby skin, and the back cover reads ' If you seek comfort, you will find none here.' I was immediately sold. This had my name written all over it before I even flipped the cover open. As the ether would have it, Lisa happened to be standing nearby and when I held her book in my hands, the kind folks manning the booth suggested I say hi. Ordinarily I shy away from unsolicited conversation, especially with other writers. I even had a giant pair of head phones on as I navigated the book fair. But meeting Lisa felt like meeting someone I already knew in the way that kindred ilk sometimes recognize one another, and I asked for her to sign the book, which she did so thusly ' I hope it makes you the right kind of miserable.'
With that I fell completely under the spell of the book and have carried its thin body tucked inside my journal with me nearly everywhere. 

Because I love this book so much, I wanted other people to read it to, especially since I feel people often don't seek out poetry or think they will 'understand it.' Because I love this book so much, I feel hesitant to write about it (hence my tardiness.) This may be why I'm continuing to digress, so here goes:

Here are some ideas that snared me:

* Immediately when flipping through or beginning to read the book, you'll notice none of the works are titled. In this way, it seems that all the poems are titled with the collective title 'At Night.' This decision may have limited Lisa when she was writing the book, but perhaps that drove the linked 'narrative' together so successfully. Although billed as poetry and often structured thusly ( despite the one liners from time to time), these writings feel more to me like secret conversations or confessions I'm not supposed to be privy to but am. Bearing witness to strangeness or mystery always makes me feel transcendent as a reader. It elevates the experience for me. I feel a bit haunted, in a similar way that Sleep No More makes me feel; an experience where I feel I'm in a place 'out of time', where I am a ghost in the company of other ghosts who cannot see me. We know the other is there, but there is no direct contact.

* Much like how the symbol on the cover suggests magic, so does the way these poems feel in the mouth when my eye moves over them. When reading them, their repetitions make me feel like I am invoking something beyond the page or preparing ingredients for a spell of protection or violence. This protection feels precarious however, the spirits looming within the pages are very real and present. Salt holds them at bay. Or tries to anyway.

* In the afterward, Lisa mentions how some of the "poems are inspired by and borrow lines from "The Newgate Calendar," a publication which gave " a full and satisfactory Account of the Crimes, Behaviors, Discourses in Prison and last Words" of criminals executed at Tyburn and Newgate Prison from the mid-sixteenth to mid-nineteenth century." I don't think this book needed this, I feel it stands alone perfectly, but when something like this is added to a text successfully, it makes my heart a swarm. These poems carry Lisa's voice as the creator, the voice of the 'imagined dead' as well as the truly dead, their words woven through her own seamlessly. The voices of the past echo into the future, into the book that sits in your hand.

* Perhaps what I was drawn most to is how important the body is in these works. Black eyes are constantly referenced, fingers in mouths, strands of hair, a binding of the body, a burning of the body, intrusions of the female body. If death has already come for these narrators, I don't imagine it was an easy leaving. Death by fire is hinted at quite often, which immediately makes me think of witch burnings. This subtly plays out like an unseen thread of anxiety stitched in the background. 

* Objects are often reassigned. The moon is all manner of things, a splinter, an axe, a shovel a tooth. Knives are pearls. The violence is both tender and not. It is asked for, and it is not. There is a lack of blood, instead there is salt and soil, death by curse. The longest poem in the book was one of my favorite, a tale of a murderous wife who seeks revenge on the favored wife. This proximity of intimacy and violence interests me, a kind of push and pull between Eros and Thanatos. 


There is more to say and hopefully there will be some discussion elsewhere. In closing, as much as this is a book of poems, it also feels like the recordings of a medium from another time. Lisa seems to be a conduit of a kind, channeling the night and its inhabitants into the constraints of a small book. I hope my thoughts will make you read it. 

Friday, September 4, 2015

To Live On

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I always feel a bit of bittersweetness at the close of August. I have a bit of nostalgia concerning shopping for school supplies and returning to classes ( powerful lectures are a favorite). I'll miss riding my bike around out here in the Mid-west, searching for thistle and spider webs, watching for bats and the dark birds that perch on the tall summer grass. I truly enter a weird period of mourning at the close of summer. Despite living in a very dark loft, I love long days of light and nights perfumed by the day's residual sunshine Yet, Autumn is a favorite time, teeming with an unnamable magic. I'm sure some of you may feel this too, even if you are a night crawler as well.

September is the hardest month for me to get through, as it concerns the sea of grief I have carried inside me since 2008 when I lost someone important in my life ( which subsequently, as some of you may know, brought about the birth of BloodMilk).
Which brings me to this series of work, 'To Live On', by Korean born, Berlin based artist Ming Jeong Seo. His work flares with that same electricity of opposites I'm always drawn to; the beautiful and the grotesque shouldering against one another in the same narrative space. Death is being challenged here, perhaps even cheated, for a while anyway.

I was reading an essay in the new issue of 'Creative Non Fiction' by writer Suzanne Roberts, concerning her personal analysis of grief. She likens grief to having the texture of water, describing it as a well that only more grief gets poured on top of, something I've noticed myself when trying to describe it, although as she says, grief seems only fitting for metaphor:

"The way we recognize a musical score-by its scales, the repeating notes-is similar to the way we recall grief. A musical score can transport us to another time and place, as if the music has always lived inside us; in the same way, one grief recalls another"

 I do not like having to carry grief around, or the knowledge that I will be piling other griefs onto this deep one I already have like a black hole inside me. However, as Suzanne mentions, "All life leads to death, so why is it so hard to imagine?."

I think these roses, temporarily suspended between life and death, explain my personal struggle so perfectly. This netherworld, this liminal space, is rife with sorrow and the knowledge of our fragility, but it is also teeming with beauty. Here, death is creeping up those shriveled stems and yet, still hard to imagine when gazing at those waterlogged blood clouds of petals.


Monday, August 3, 2015

Blood Milk Book Club August:

Sally Wen Mao


Sally Wen Mao: from 'Mad Honey Symposium'


Lisa Ciccarello

Lisa Ciccarello from 'At Night' 



I've chosen two titles of poetry for the Blood Milk Book Club this month. I'll be changing format each month, so for September it will be a book of short stories. In tandem to a more "traditional" conversational style book club post (this time, as per some feedback I received, I'll post some prompting questions to incite discussion), I hope to have extra posts revolving around these books live during the month, including an author interview, or two. 
I've been thrilled with the response & honored by the support I've been receiving. 

If interested in reading along this month, please pick up: 

Mad Honey Symposium by Sally Wen Mao from small press Alice James Books HERE.

At Night by Lisa Ciccarello from Black Ocean Books HERE.  The kind folks at Black Ocean are offering 30% off of Lisa's glorious book for the month of August. Enter BLOODMILK at checkout and feel good about supporting a small independent press. 

I know some people cringe when they think of reading poetry. & while some of these poems are written in a more 'traditional' format, I promise that if you are at all interested in my aesthetic or have read and liked other books I've recommended, these poems will be like daggers to your heart and at least one poem from each book will snare you forever. I've posted one of my favorites from each author above. 

Further reading to nudge you along:

Publisher's Weekly review of At Night.
Lisa's blog. 
Lisa's Tiny Letter.
An interview with Lisa.

Publisher's Weekly review of Mad Honey Symposium.
A cluster of glowing reviews on Sally's site.
An interview with Sally.
another interview with Sally.


Monday, July 13, 2015

Guest Post: Summer Scents For Those Who Shun The Sun

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When I was younger, summertime, to me, meant curling up on a sweaty vinyl chair on the screened-in back porch with a pitcher of powdered iced tea drink and reading stories of ghosts and monsters and possessed children. If I was lucky, the skies would darken at midday, the winds would pick up, and a fearsome storm would thunder through the area; this is a common occurrence on a summer afternoon in central Florida, and normally would not last more than ten minutes.

I avoided the sun when at all possible; I did not relish playing outside with my sisters or the neighbor’s kids, I did not care for trips to the beach, I didn’t like being hot and sticky and gross. And I didn’t really have any friends to do any of those things with, anyhow. But I’d never had many friends, so I really didn’t know any better and I didn’t feel badly about it. These long, sweltering days on the back porch voraciously tearing through stacks upon stacks of cheap, lurid used bookstore finds are some of the happiest memories I have from my pre-teen years. This was how summer was supposed to be, I thought, and at the ages of 11/12/13, I was young enough to have the luxury of spending that time however I liked. And after the daily rains, which were impatiently anticipated and perfectly inevitable -that was my favorite part of the day: a few glorious moments when the humidity dropped the tiniest bit, the air cooled a few degrees, and the sun disappeared entirely, culminating in a rich scent that still tugs at my memories and the edges of my dreams many years later. The musty scent of disintegrating paperbacks, the air heavy with the sweet, musky fragrance of jasmine, the tang of ozone, just before a heavy rainfall. This was the scent of my summers.

Years later when it comes to scenting myself for summer weather, I steer clear of many of the perfumes marketed for these sizzling, stifling afternoons when the evil day star holds sway. I don’t want to smell like the synthetic coconut of greasy suntan lotion, nor do I want to smell like those generic aquatics that are supposedly “crisp and refreshing” or the ubiquitous green tea and cucumber/melon melange which smell like so many country club air fresheners. Yes, I do want something lighter, for anything richer and heavier would certainly suffocate and strangle me in our notoriously murky, muggy Southern summers...but I want a scent that also evokes some sort of nostalgia, triggers a memory, conjured a long-forgotten dream.

 Below is a list of my five preferred fragrances in this vein; scents for these summer months that are at turns cooling, invigorating, revitalizing and imaginative. Summer scents for those who shun the sun.


Coriandre by Jean Couturier is a light, lovely chypre launched in the mid-70’s. If you are not familiar with chypres, well, they seem to be a rather divisive grouping of scents, with perfume lovers falling squarely in either the Love Them or Hate Them camps. To me, generically, chypres smell a bit cold and astringent, distant; but Coriandre is on the warmer, more familiar end of the spectrum. It does remind me of something from the 70s; it’s got a hazy Polaroid quality to it. A warm, grassy summer day recalled through the yellowed veil of memory. It's dry and woody and musky and I think it smells a bit like a lovely little secret that you might never be ready to share.

Annick Goutal's Mandragore reminds me of a scene in the 1980's vampire film The Lost Boys, when the main characters' grandpa says "....well that's about as close to town as I like to get." My perfume shelf is filled mostly with deep, dark, resinous fragrances, and Mandragore, with its bright lemony/peppery opening that quickly fades to a soft, minty bergamot, is as close to a "summer scent" as I like to get. It's a lovely, (softly) zingy scent that calls to mind some sort of mildly alcoholic herbal shandy one might drink to refresh one's self at the close of a balmy June afternoon. Unfortunately, much like the buzz from this weak cocktail, the scent lasts but a moment and is gone.

 Safran Troublant by L’Artisan is a wonderfully restorative, heart-warming/opening scent. It should be part of a comforting bedtime ritual at the end of a long, hot day where one has done a lot of yard work or gardening. There’s a comforting sweetness to it, though not at all sugary or cloying. A creamy sandalwood pudding, a lukewarm bath lightly infused with milk and rose petals and a deep, enveloping hug. You’ll sleep quite well and be visited by the loveliest midsummer dreams.

Danube, by Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab is a beloved scent that is, for me, more about memory than the actual fragrance itself. It is a deep blue aquatic scent - but not salty, ozone-y, beachy aquatic, nor is it murky, swampy aquatic. Like a cold swimming pool on a hot day (maybe if you were adding grapefruit to your pool instead of chlorine) with every blue flower imaginable floating on top of it. Imagine being 6 years old and holding your breath and submerging yourself in a swimming pool, then slo-o-o-wly sinking to the bottom. The water is chilled, you feel like the only person in the world and everything is totally silent. Imagine peering up and seeing the sun streaming down into the water, between all of the blue petals. It's calm and soothing and serene and is an absolutely a must for hot, sticky weather and for people who haven't got a swimming pool. For other other unique summer scents from BPAL, sniff out Fae (sweet, floral, peachy), and Zephyr (light musk, soft lemon and florals), and Aeval (dried herbs & sweet pea & tonka and it smells like all of my favorite occult bookshops at once -herbs and oils and stones and crystals and and the crisp pages of unopened books filled with unlearned knowledge.)

When I was 18, I was dating the boy who used to live next door to me, but who had since graduated high school and moved to Indiana to attend Notre Dame. We spent a week together on summer break, during which time he had flown down South to stay with me and my family. It was early in this visit that he proposed to me on the beach one night, and I accepted...though something told me that this was a doomed venture. I knew it was not going to last, and yet I agreed anyway; I suppose I just liked the idea that something interesting loomed in the distant future for me. One late afternoon a few days later, we took a drive; the sun hung low on the horizon, the windows were down, and on the wind that ruffled our hair was the musky, sweet scent of orange blossoms, as we had just driven past a massive orange grove. Jo Malone’s Orange Blossom smells like that summer afternoon, sweet blooms and dying suns and the melancholy of tears yet to be shed for reasons you’re not quite sure of.

A bonus scent, which I have mentioned before, so it didn’t seem quite fair to list it above: Comme des Garcons Incense Series: Kyoto. To be honest, Kyoto is my go-to fragrance no matter what the season; it’s austere and meditative and calls to mind a dark prayer in a cool, shadowy forest temple. But there is something exceptionally wonderful about it in the summer months. On a day of wretched, heated summertime oppression, do this: draw the curtains, dim the lights, strip naked, and liberally spritz yourself with Kyoto. Lay on your bed, mid-afternoon in the dark. Nap for a time. Dream of cooler places.


What scents do you dream of in summer time? What cools you down & soothes your brow when the temperatures soar?

 Leave a comment with your ideal summer fragrance, whether it is based on a memory, a story, or a combination of your favorite summer smells, and be entered into a giveaway for samples of the perfumes listed above, as well as, various other “summer scent” samples! Giveaway will close and a winner will be chosen on Monday, July 20 !

*So many thanks to S. Elizabeth / Mlle Ghoul for joining me on my blog again. This lady writes about scent ( & many other things )better than anyone I've come across and I'm thrilled to have her on the blog again. For her previous scent post, take a peek here. She'll be returning soon for a guide on Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab  scents ! *

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Vorrh: B. Catling.

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Welcome to the first installment of the Blood Milk Book Club: 'The Vorrh' by B. Catling.

As I've mentioned before, I'm absolutely winging this, it is completely experimental but something I feel dedicated to and passionate about, and sometimes, despite the small messes you can make when starting something without having a recipe in hand, things unravel and smooth out over time if you burn for it. So here goes:

When I was in graduate school, one of the first courses I took was Shelley Jackson's Non-Linear class. We read odd books; I was both bored by some of the gimmicks and stimulated by the writers who fared better at digressions. B. Catling is one of those writers who is successful at digressions. He is also brilliant at carrying the heavy weights of a large cast of characters and sub-species within a fantastical setting. ( The hefty Game of Thrones books are also mostly successful with this same balancing act. ) 

There is talk about how fantasy based / weird / cosmic horror / speculative fiction will be taken more seriously and will be penned by more contemporary writers in the present and future tenses as it allows people to explore psychic / psychological situations with an escape of realism ( i.e. the exploding success of Karen Russell into the main stream.) Which quickens my blood because it has always been my favorite way to read and write. Anything that transports me wholly from my life and internal landscape's sounds/moods/repetitions is for me. Books as escape hatches always. Which was precisely what 'The Vorrh' offered, an entrance into a world forged with truly original imaginative thinking & beautifully sculpted language / sentences.


Here are some ideas that snared me:

* The night seems to take on another texture. When traveling into 'The Vorrh', 'Night' last upwards of 40 hours, or feels like it does anyway. The darkness is 'perfumed', it is riddled with strange creatures that may be blood thirsty, it is an ominous black tablet painted with layers of darknesses. 

Charlotte's descriptions of the Twilight Dove and the Twilight Raven seem to be metaphors for these differences in light/darkness. 

This technique lends itself to other disorienting elements in the book. It's hard to know the exact landscape of the forest and where the travelers are inside of it. It seems more like a vortex; the memory draining and The Orm's hollowing techniques are quite frightful. This contrast of beauty and terror is exactly the kind of thing that works sharp hooks into me. 

* Despite depictions of monstrous cruelty, graphic violence ( there are many murders and strange deaths woven like a dark thread through the skin of the book) and taboo subjects (the one who looks back), there is a realistic and comforting view of love and friendship found in so many of the criss crossings of characters. Even when Ishmael forgoes his ghostly friendship for his lover, I believed. Sometimes friendships are apparitions, materializing in and out of your life. Other times our relationships run deeper and we sacrifice for them. 

* Although I enjoyed the passages on Muybridge, (some of which were my favorite in the book) he's the only person who hasn't directly been inside the Vorrh ( although it appears he's traversed every other heart of darkness) or knowingly been in direct contact with anyone who has travelled inside it. He's a historical figure with his own 'real' baggage and yet is given a new life under Catling's pen. He exists outside of the intersecting narratives. I did however, get excited when Sarah Winchester showed up. I love the Winchester Mystery House. Its one of those structures I feel deeply drawn to. 

I loved this bit from his story line 'Muybridge was vividly reminded of a photograph he never stopped to take...' This stayed with me and lent itself to the arching narrative of memory within. How some of the character's memories are sharp and intact, while others are erased and fogged, and yet still others, like the rest of us, have a more shifting relationship with our memories. 

* I was interested in the many spiritual traditions at play. They were numerous and yet, it is said that Eden lies at the center (which we are never made clear if Peter Williams has made it to or not.) Catling was not heavy handed with the Bible here and Adam is actually struck down more easily than I imagined possible. Charms, spells, potions, prayers, tests of faith, and healing rituals are all a beautiful cocktail in this world, operating side by side. I was interested in how well Catling was able to describe and balance these different ideas, some of which were not even wholly understood or flushed out, but still succeeded. (thinking of the Limboia in particular here and their strange mirror ritual.)

*Lastly, though I could go on & hope to in the comments: I really enjoyed all of the descriptions of bodies and feel this is one of Catling's  most poignant strengths, which may stem from him also being a visual and performance artist as well. We may not always be rooted in a particular place, more levitating over it, but his bodily imaginings make me feel tethered to this world he's created. The Kin have bodies that are described as 'hard and beetle like' while their innards seem to be made of a kind of thick spider silk cream. Ishmael's body and sexual organs are graphically described and even in his self-imposed transformation to look more normal, he still comes across as beautiful and gentle to me. By the end, 'his life is his to live' and I'll be curious to see how he fares in upcoming installments. The Erstwhile also have transformed bodies that can't be perceived by the human eye, but once they are burned, their bones are more tangible. I can go on and on here: 'a zoo of measured humanity.' A line that may yet be the heart of the story at hand. 

Synchroncity I found personally pleasing:

In Alan Moore's glowing review of the book, he describes it as akin to Max Ernst's collage work.

Muybridge's work is prominent in a Laird Barron story, 'The Hand of Glory.'

So, what were your thoughts ?

 Please remember I moderate comments to avoid strange spam so if yours doesn't show up right away, please be patient ! 

*image of the author as a cyclops*


Thursday, July 2, 2015

nightside.

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we go down to the river to shed. at night, this sloughing of skin, this shared release. a secret we pass to each other like a lit match.

in the summer, the river spiders weave their nursery webs and eat their lovers. sometimes they come near, named for the gloom, each of their eight eyes trained on our undoing.

in the winter the swallows anxiously watch us from their lofty nests, tucked into the bridge's eaves.
we run our arms against rocks, against each other, almost intimate.
we loosen our skin at the elbow, a grievous unbuttoning.
we unravel, removing our skins like long gloves, finger by finger.

our skins trail in the snow like pale ribbons, rotten lengths of lace hurriedly left behind. 

you kiss me and your lip slips between my teeth,
 coils on my tongue, 
dissolves like smoke. 

* collaborative photos by artists Crystal Lee Lucas & Dylan Garrett Smith.*

Friday, May 1, 2015

Everything Around Her Was On Fire: An Interview with Jessica Dalva

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Sift, or Everything Around Her Was on Fire (detail)


While working on my new collection 'Darkling, I Listen', I have been reading a lot of Carl Jung and his interpretations on Alchemy and how this ancient process relates to his idea of individuation;  the successful psychic process of 'becoming whole', or integrating the conscious with the unconscious  ( or for me, in relation to 'Darkling', truly knowing & accepting oneself, despite the darkness, depression, melancholy or nightmares we may carry inside us. ) One of the stages of this process Jung likens to the alchemical stage of Nigredo, or the putrefaction, the blackening, the 'killing'. For Jung, this is the time one when meets their shadow and faces it. Not for banishment, but for acceptance. One must be destroyed in order to understand, in order to transcend. 

Though these are not the foundations that artist Jessica Louise Dalva may have built her own new body of work, Hapax Legomena on, which opens on May 1st ( Happy Beltane!) at L.A.'s La Luz de Jesus Gallery, I still find threads of these ideas in the barren, ashen landscapes that appear to be the charred evidence of rolling fires, and in the solitude of the figures, perhaps just out of this fire themselves.

I like to think of Jessica working on these pieces, perhaps late at night. I think of the the intense, meticulous attention that must go into every choice, the literally molding & conjuring of flesh that holds no heartbeat, but yet still bears visceral emotions. I recently had the honor to ask Jessica some general questions about her process, as well as more ( self-serving perhaps!) personal ones about darkness and emotional solitude.


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Augury, or There Beside You (detail)


Although you primarily work in 3D, you are also a painter and create graphite drawings as well.  What attracts you to working with dimensional mediums ?

 My mother is a ceramic sculptor and also used to make large hand-carved wooden sculptures, so I have always had sculpture around me. When I was little, I would make little cats and pinch pots on the porch with her while she worked on her pieces, which are primarily figurative or animal-based. In school, I majored in Illustration because I wanted to learn how to draw and paint, but I found myself frustrated and honestly sort of uninspired by painting- I wanted to play with more materials and spatial changes. I am always looking for new materials to use, and I really enjoy figuring out how to build something, and painting on a flat surface just sort of underwhelmed me.

 Making a physical object from nothing (or from a lump of clay or scraps of fabric) is always very satisfying to me- it’s like taking flour, milk, butter and eggs; then magically you have a cake. Also, I feel that there is a certain charm and fascination that comes from wondering what something is made of or how it is constructed. That’s one of my favorite things about other artists’ work, the mystery of how it’s built, and sculpture offers a wide variety of problems to be solved with interesting and ever-changing techniques. I constantly feel like I might switch back entirely to painting and drawing, I do have a great love for both, and there is a very appealing flexibility there when all you need to make your art is a pencil and some paper. Part of me wants to paint giant oil paintings and draw messy portraits in charcoal, and perhaps I’ll have a chance to indulge that desire, but sculpture will always be a natural solution to me.


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Over recent years, there has been a lot of cross over of what is considered ‘fine art’ and what is considered ‘craft.’ Could you talk about this blurring? 

This is one of those never-ending debates- every “craftsperson” of worth will say that there is a degree of art to their work, and every honest “fine artist” would acknowledge the elements that are purely craft they use to create their art. I think that having infinite knowledge at our fingertips (aka the Internet) has been a significant influence in this blur- people are exposed to higher levels of skill from people that they would otherwise never interact with, so inspiration can come from a much wider source than it has in the past. You can see a master origami artist on the same page as a photorealistic painter and a textile sculptor, and it is more up to one’s own opinion whether any or all of these are artists or not. There is no singular Salon that is the end-all-be-all of artistic merit, as there has been before, and so we are freer from limitation on materials and techniques.

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Tantivy, or You Said You’d Be Gone a Long Time



Can you talk about the process of working on a show, from conception to completion ? 

The process is a long one! I’ve already got an inkling of what my next series will consist of. I generally start with many lists. Lists of words, colors, themes, phrases, titles, characters, animals, and even textures. Then I narrow things down to the main, important aspects, and decide a rough outline of pieces I want to make. This outline can morph considerably, and often. I then gather lots of reference and start sketching (though really, many of these steps cross back and forth for a few months- sketch and list and list and sketch). My sketches are sometimes very detailed, with measurements, material lists, and colors listed in the margins, but they can also be super loose and basically stick figures with a word or two to remind me what they are about.




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Then, my least favorite part- armatures. I make a lightweight armature with aluminum wire, basically a simplified skeleton for the figure. Usually at this point I will mess around with the pose of the figure and determine how it will attach to the frame or base. I am bad at deciding the pose and sticking with it strictly, though, so often arms and legs will get cut off or moved as the piece progresses. When working on a larger body of work, I will usually have a number of pieces being made at once, so I can shift around and don’t get too bogged down in one piece’s problems. As more pieces get started, I can go back and do little tiny details on more completed pieces, then back to fun cutting, drilling and building, then hunker down for some mindless application of clay to a rough figure. Sometimes I will get a random inspiration and have to completely alter a piece, or scrap an idea to make way for something better.

Before, during, and after a show I have a number of lists running of ideas and elements to be included in this or future shows. The pieces all have a lot of different elements to them which require different tools, materials and processes, so sometimes I will assembly-line a task and get all the eyeballs painted glossy at once or make 15 different-sized armatures in an afternoon. As the pieces get more solidly finished, I lock down the titles, which I generally have a loose idea of while I work on the piece, but leave until the end so I am sure they really fit with the feeling of the completed piece.

Because I have limited studio space, I hang my pieces on my wall as they come into being, which is beneficial so I can see everything together and make sure there is a cohesive feel to the series. I also tend to try to rush together “one last thing” right before the show opens, as I never feel like I have enough done or have one more idea I just have to get done.



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Helix


One of the things that I can personally relate to with your work is the expressions of your figures, so many of them seem to have palpable emotions. Do you work from models, or are these internal conjurings ? 

One of my greatest pleasures in life is drawing and sculpting from life- unfortunately it’s a luxury I cannot afford at this moment to indulge in on a regular basis or for every piece. I will occasionally hire a friend who is a lovely modern dancer to model for me and take reference photos of her, but the majority of my pieces’ poses are frankensteined reference from awkward photos of myself. If anyone ever got a hold of my Photo Booth images on my computer, they would be amused by a series of photos of me brandishing a broom in my underwear, or confused as to why on earth I needed to hold my arm up in the air for 27 minutely different hand gestures. I also will often take parts of a photo I find online or a sketch I’ve done from life and combine them in more refined sketches. I try to avoid directly using reference from the internet, though, as I don’t want to infringe on anyone’s work.



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Viscera, or What More Can I Give (detail)


Also, as in a few previous works as well, the bodies of some of your figures are fissured, they become an ‘other' by these wounds that no ‘real’ person could survive. Can you talk about this hollowing, this violence?

There is an opportunity in sculpture (and all art, really) to create something that is at once fairly realistic and completely impossible. The feeling of hollowness or being torn apart is sort of a universally experienced phenomenon, even though, hopefully, most people don’t know what this would actually feel like. I also like to leave the source of these cavities open to suggestion, as we all have different experiences that leave us feeling this way. Maybe I often have leaned towards this symbolism because I am, in these instances, at a loss for another way to describe or illustrate how this feels. By representing an overwhelming and often seriously dangerous, destructive, feeling of despair with something that is unreal or unsurvivable, the gravity of its impact can really be seen.

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Abyss


There seems to be a more visceral ‘darkness’ or melancholy in this body of work as a whole compared to other exhibitions. Many of the backgrounds are pared down, appear ashen or voids the figures are suspended in. Can you talk about this chosen landscape ?

Part of this theme is a personal desire to create work with a more graphic and simplified aesthetic, and part of it is because I had a pretty hard year, and drew a lot of inspiration from that. I wanted to focus on sculpting more realistic figures and animals, and I find that there was enough information in some of the pieces to capture my concept. I went through a variety of personal struggles that lead to many of the pieces, and much of this was centered around being alone and developing a more thoughtful relationship with myself. And also I hate painting backgrounds. :)



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Sift, or Everything Around Her Was on Fire 


Narrative appears to play an important role in your work, these pieces feel like little clips of a larger story, as if we’ve trapped the protagonist in a moment of choice or action. Can you talk about how storytelling is important to you ? 

Your interpretation here is really spot on, I often say that each piece is a little snippet, or a short story, or a moment in time that is part of an overall story. This show was a little different than some of my past series, which had much more defined stories, as I intentionally left the pieces disconnected from one another. That is the main theme and source behind the title of the show; “Hapax Legomena” are words that only appear once in a language or body of work, and each one of these pieces stands on its own. In previous series of works, I have actually written full stories and based pieces on the significant moments in the story. When I’m working on a piece, I tend to create a little narrative about the subject and what they are feeling or doing. Most of the time, the most important aspect of the piece is how the subject feels, and so the story can evolve and change quite a bit while I work. One of my most loved interactions is when someone tells me what they think the story is behind a piece I’ve made, because, although they often are rather different than my own, it’s fascinating to see what tales they gather from what I’ve created.

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 Involution, or In the Quiet


Many of your figures appear alone or joined with an animal. Can you talk about this solitude from others? In the once instance that there are two figures together, they appear young, as if the world was still whole, a flashback in time perhaps.

This series had a lot of basis in self-reflection, and so many of the figures are on their own. In the pieces with animals, I actually intended to use the animals to represent another person- the animals aren’t really supplementary characters, but more like symbolized versions of another person. For example, “Involution, or, In the Quiet” was originally going to be a similar pose but with another human figure instead of the mountain lion. I found it was more conceptually accurate to use an animal as the second character for many of the pieces, as their expression and interaction was more symbolic. When creating two human forms, the smallest of change in balance, pose or expression can wield much more unpredictable interpretations in the audience.

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Per Aspera Ad Astra, or We Never Lost Sight of the Horizon (detail)

I really like your view of the piece with the two children, it’s quite close to my original concept, which stemmed from the feeling of having this inherent comfort when one finds oneself staring out onto the ocean in the company of someone one cares for. It’s a flashback in a way, but also by representing the pair as children, it makes me feel like it shows a more simple, whole feeling than the implied complexities of two adults standing by the sea. The idea also drew from one of my favorite quotes, by Loren Eiseley,

“Every time we walk along a beach some ancient urge disturbs us so that we find ourselves shedding shoes and garments or scavenging among seaweed and whitened timbers like the homesick refugees of a long war.” 

Because they are children, they represent an intrinsic human feeling, and have less implied, unnecessary information to cloud the meaning of the piece. This feeling of solitude I think is still being experienced by all the characters, even if they have a companion. I can only create things from what I know, and I really only know my own experiences, so I often tend to create pieces with a strong feeling of isolation, as that is all we ultimately can really know.

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Barghest, or Look After Me

I love the clothing you create for your figures (when they are clothed), all the tiny details and folds really snare me. Can you talk about what its like to make this aspect of the work ? Do you know what the clothing will look like before the body is sculpted or is it something that happens after they come into form ?

Thank you! That is one of my favorite parts too. A lot of the clothing starts out with a general plan, something like a cloak or skirt, and then it is influenced by a few things before it evolves into the final “garment”. I will usually have the sculpture fully painted at this point, sometimes I’ll have applied the hair but not always. I then go and gather options for fabric choices - I have drawers organized by color of both large and tiny scraps of fabric (the problem with the scale that I work in is it validates my keeping of every tiny little scrap of fabric, since a 2” piece of velvet is sometimes just perfect for what I need) and trim and little bits and baubles. Usually at this point my desk is a sea of silk and ribbon and little metal bits and tiny flowers.

Then I try to narrow the choices down, holding up and “draping” the figure with various combinations of materials until I find what works best for the piece. I have a bunch of pieces of antique fabrics, lace and ribbons, and these often inform how I build the clothing- there will be a little edge of lace that creates a perfect neckline and then I work around that to create the costume. And sometimes I will have an idea for the costume that ends up not working with the figure- if an arm is down and touches the side of the figure, it can be hard to create a convincing sleeve, or other such logistical restrictions. Then, depending on the piece, there is lots of careful glueing and sewing tiny stitches, often a couple instances of tearing off fabric and starting over, and then starching and pinning the folds of fabric in place to create the illusion of the appropriate weight of the fabric or so it looks like it’s being blown by the wind. After the main fabric pieces are in place, I will go back and age them, and add embellishments.

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Onslaught, or Left to Drastic Measures (detail)

Like my fabric collection, I have drawers of ribbon, trim, lace, beads and metal tidbits that I pull out and paw through to find just the right thing for each piece. I’ve been collecting these kinds of things forever, so many have a history and significance to me- like the armor I made for the piece “Onslaught, or, Left to Drastic Measures” is made from scraps of brass sheeting that my mom had used in her sculptures years ago, and the “burned” branches in “Sift, or, Everything Around her was on Fire” were collected on a hike in the San Bernadino National Forest where I went camping with friends.



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Eyrie, or Clarity of Conscience (detail)

The names of each piece intrigued me in relation to the show title. Could you talk about these double names ? 

I wanted to title each piece with a unique word, to follow along with the show title of Hapax Legomena, but I felt like there was a little more explanation necessary in some cases. There were a few phrases that I had to include, like “everything around her was on fire” which I had heard randomly walking down the street, and it stuck with me for months. The titles become a sort of short story to me, and can really change how people interpret the piece. I felt like if I only used the singular words for some of the pieces, it would distract from the actual concept- the additional titles are meant as a way of clarifying the meaning of the piece.


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Spectres, or While I Slept (detail)

There is a nightmarish quality to the work that I’m attracted to; a anxiety that I can  personally relate to in some of the compositions. Do you feel that your dream life informs your work ? 

Yes, and in this show especially. The character of the black dogs that appears in a few of the pieces is directly pulled from reoccurring nightmares I had as a child- these creepy black dogs with glowing white-blue eyes would silently appear and try to eat me. Then, while researching, I find out that this is a fairly common myth (especially from the British Isles) of an ominous, giant black dog that stalks the countryside and preys on wandering travelers. A lot of my best ideas come to me either just as I’m falling asleep or just as I wake up - I have a running list of ideas, hastily written down, often half asleep, which can lend itself to some pretty funny, incoherent nonsense, but also to some good ideas. It’s important for me to always keep notes of little ideas or things I see, or dreams, as often this is the starting point for a piece, and I never know where a tiny idea will take me. I have always had a pretty intense dream life, and it often will affect my waking hours, either by inspiring a great idea or by convincing me that monsters are after me or some other super realistic and disturbing story.



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Can you describe what your studio looks like? Do you need to be surrounded by visual stimulation, do you read much etc ? How do you prepare for the idea of a show ? 

My “studio” takes up the majority of my little living room space! I have two desks and lots and lots of drawers and shelves filled with little boxes of supplies, books, materials and an amateur hoarder’s amount of fabric. Mixed in with beads and wire and fifteen different kinds of tape, I like to display little collections of things I find beautiful. I try to keep my knick knacks down to a minimum (see previous mention of hoarder-type tendencies) but on my shelves and the tops of dressers I have friends’ artwork, plants, various found skulls and bones, and souvenirs from adventures, many of which are strangely shaped pieces of wood, or rocks.


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One of the Unofficial Dalva Family Mottos is “Rocks are your friends,” so basically any place I go, I end up bringing back an interesting stone… or six. I also have managed to gather a fairly hefty collection of art and reference books, as well as a number of beautiful, old novels and collections of children’s stories. One of my most prized possessions is a little book from the turn of the century, titled “Mental Portraits” which has page after page of surveys, filled out by a teenage girl's (Emma U. Raymond, Charlestown Massachusetts) friends in the most beautiful, handwritten script. Each survey asks the friends to fill out their answers for things like “the greatest wonder of the world, according to my estimation:” (common responses- “The Telegraph” or “The Brooklyn Bridge”) and “My Favorite Music” (answers include “Church organ” and “violin”) - it’s basically a beautiful version of Facebook from the 1880’s. Some of the answers are pretty funny, one of my favorites is - “Shipwrecked on a desolate island, I would most desire: … “ A Ship.” And that even at this time, everyone loved pug dogs.

I like to keep books around me that I can flip through; I have a number of artist’s books of both older (Alphonse Mucha, Egon Schiele, JC Lyendecker, etc) and contemporary (Nathan Ota, Andrew Hem, Liz McGrath, etc) artists that I admire, as well as tons of anatomical reference books, drawing books and animal reference. I have been trying to read more novels, but I also really enjoy nonfiction biographies and histories, and have a few shelves of those filling my studio.


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I am also a fan of Pinterest, since I can keep a huge resource of reference and inspiration right at my fingertips, as well as be exposed to friends' and others’ special finds. When I’m working on a piece, I will gather a selection of images from Google searches and Pinterest, especially reference of animals or parts of poses for figures, and pull them up to have with me while I’m working. Sometimes just one image will spark something that becomes an entire piece, or I will have ten different crows to look at to get it just right.

My process for a show has no set structure- I tend to have loose ideas that I refine as I go along, some stay stronger the whole time, while some can completely change from start to finish. It is a very personal experience, as I use the creation of these pieces as a way to wrap my head around ideas and problems I am having. I am often nervous and uncomfortable when talking about the way I feel, but by creating something that is another form of communication, I can express myself in a more natural and satisfying way. Creating a whole series is a daunting task, but sometimes being able to attack a general concept from a number of angles can help you reach a higher understanding of the problem than just making a single piece or speaking to a friend about it.