I recently conducted telephone interviews with two of the artists in this month’s online exhibit, and Ginny Stearns interviewed me. Each has been edited for clarity and length. Please scroll down to see all three. – Miriam Davis
Your exhibit is centered on trees…
“I have been fascinated by trees, especially mature trees, and have photographed them for years. I love them. I had an opportunity to go to Japan, and was exposed to the Japanese reverence for trees. Certain trees have a powerful presence, and are considered to be homes of the Kami, divine spirits in the Shinto religion, which is very nature-focused. These trees are identified and protected by a beautiful woven rope, a Shimenawa, wrapped around the tree. It's very bad luck to cut down one of these trees. The Japanese even honor stumps of special trees and cover them to protect them from rot. I felt like I was at home.”
I noticed you use two photographs or a cut photograph in these pieces?
“I may juxtapose several photos in order to reveal more of the character of the tree. “Dawn Redwood” is a relative of the redwoods of Mendocino, and I am very fond of this one.”
The steps in the upper background have a Greek look to me.
“The tree is on the UCSF medical campus; one of the rather grand buildings is in the background.”
There is a sweet little plant growing in the crevices at the base of the tree.
“Using two photographs, I can focus close up to reveal that lovely green sprig and also show the upper part of the tree. New life right there that wouldn't have shown in a single, more distant photograph. I see a distinct confluence of shapes in this tree that extends from the base of the trunk up through the branches. I don’t need the middle section of the tree to reveal that. These works include pieces of branches, and some have roots or stones. The branches bring forth the texture of the redwood. They reiterate the shape of the tree, and add depth.”
What has it been like for you working during the pandemic?
"On top of the stress of the pandemic is the pain of all the trees and wildlife dying in the wildfires. But the pandemic has made me very grateful for my little family, and also for my artistic practice, where I can focus on honoring the handsome trees that give me such joy."
You seem to have a quite personal relationship with some trees.
“We have a venerable cherry tree that I've been living with in Little River for about 30 years, dying now from old age and damage during the drought, although lately she’s been doing better. I placed a strip of white satin fabric around her, my own Shimenawa. She's on her way, and I'm there to be with her, and she with me, as we get older together.”
“Long ago, while visiting my sister in Alaska, I discovered how much I love winter. It is very dark there, and starkly beautiful. The bare black twigs of bushes and trees poke through snow like drawings. I love the white on white of winter, and I’ve used it for years in my work, looking for subtlety to tame my emotional conflicts.”
“Fog and Ice” isn’t white, but it looks like a winter piece. How was it made?
“Fog and Ice” is all about winter and transparency. It’s symbolic of my feelings of being in a fog these past four years. There’s so much sadness, so much pain and anger. I simplified all these confused feelings about loss into layers of tulle and gossamer over painted paper. They represent the emotional extremes I’ve been feeling.”
Would you talk about “The Futility of Trying to Mend the Ocean?”
“Since 1984 many of my paper and fabric constructions have been about the industrialization of the ocean, focusing on offshore oil development. This piece is about trying to save the ocean—literally mend the ocean with stitches and basting. I sewed a piece of fencing on top to “protect” the ocean—clearly an impossibility. Our oceans are over-fished, polluted with oil spills and chemicals, full of plastic debris. So there are bits of fishing equipment—lures and swivels and line—and floating synthetic fabric remnants.”
The blue pieces in your exhibit look so different from the fabric constructions…
“I've been fascinated by surface textures of water in swimming pools and rivers and the ocean. There are all these interlocking, puzzle-like shapes outlined with white foam. I sewed heavy watercolor paper into shapes and then painted them in soft colors. I did a series of these to explore the subject and this technique. I noticed in one piece that there seemed to be faces, or parts of faces, in each shape. One face looked like my father. My work has rarely been figurative, and these weren’t intentional, but I’ve grown to like the faces with their haunting quality. I’ve titled that piece, ‘Water Ghosts.’”
The pain of our times, a more than personal pain I believe, informs your work through and through.
“I am frightened. I have recurring pain in the middle of my chest. That nightmare in the White House, the poisoning of our national life—it’s all tied together with the increasingly dangerous state of our planet. But I have found hope, too, in sisterhood and friendships and community, and in the integrity and decency I see coming in our government. There is movement toward unity, and determination to do better. Focusing on the moment, in the moment, is what helps me survive this difficult time.”
And, I would say, your ability to bring beauty out of pain.
Your sculptures are wonderfully dreamlike, intriguing and mysterious. How do you come up with these ideas?
“The sculptures always start with an image that occurs to me, usually when I’m relaxing, like a dream image. It may make me curious. If I nourish it by looking at it again and again, maybe it will come to something.”
You’ve got a sinking couch in this piece.
“I’ve made a number of couch and easy chair pieces over many years. At some point I realized what they suggested to me: comfort, safety, domestic stability. Once a couch fell apart while I was working on it. I left it in pieces and made two figures putting it back together.”
I love it that the sculptures leave the viewer to come up with their own narratives. As in “The Visit.” Who’s visiting whom? Is he interested in her or the ice cream or does he distinguish? What are these octopus tentacles on the back of the sofa? Do you have your own narrative for the works?
“I usually see a story there, but I like to leave it open. In my story, the mermaid is visiting him. (That couch is one you might find in a man’s study, isn’t it?) She looks young, vulnerable. But, hardly visible, the arms of a fellow sea creature are reaching around. To me it’s protection for her, warning for him, and makes for a balance of power and composition—and a fun surprise from the back. But there’s nothing that says other people have to see it that way. Anyway, once an artist completes a work it’s part of the world out there and available for interpretation.”
They are very beautifully crafted. Tell me about your process.
“I rough out the objects and figures in fine-textured porcelain. When they are leather-hard, I cut off heads, couch backs, other thick areas and hollow them out to avoid cracking during firing. Then, after I put everything back together, I focus on the details: faces, hair, edges. After firing I sand and smooth a little, then apply oil paints.”
How has the pandemic affected you and your work?
“Not really a lot. My work is about interior life anyway. I miss my friends, of course, and physical touch. Dancing. But I know some folks are experiencing severe hardship and losing loved ones. I feel undeservedly fortunate in my situation. I still never have enough time to work.”
Do you have anything more you’d like to say about your work?
“I think of my work as a window into reality. We take stability for granted, but the ground is never really firm under our feet. I think our best response to uncertainty involves curiosity. Let’s look, investigate, let’s see what we can see while we can see.”