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Blog | The Birdsell Project

Interview with Artist-in-Residence: Matthew Batty

By Leah Gallant

matthew2Matthew in his installation at the Commerce Center, ‘Trapping the In Between.’


The natural world is central to your work as both subject and medium. Can you tell me about your larger philosophies on the environment and  its relationships to humans?

I’m interested in investigating a nostalgic idea of nature through my work. We’ve become so detached from nature, but we glamorize it as this thing we need to get back to—things like hunting are romanticized in TV shows. I’m not trying to paint pictures of hunting as totally negative, because I don’t think it is—hunting is the sole reason that society even started, it was the need to hunt bigger and larger things that brought people to work together. The role of hunting has changed, so I’m interested in questioning the role of hunting now. I’m also interested in the idea that we need to repair nature. Nature will repair itself, we just need to get out of its way.



Matthew Batty, Fruit of the Hunt


What does it mean for you to drawing on these issues now, where there’s a lot of dialogue about environmental destruction? And making art about those subjects?

For me, it’s one of the ways that I can do my part as an activist. I sign petitions daily and try to live my life by the same philosophies that I’m making art from. Environmental concerns are what my work is about but they aren’t the only issue. Gender equity issues, for example, as well as other social issues, are just as important to me as the environment, but as a male I can only be an ally. I don’t have the voice to make work about those issues, so I make work about the things I feel like I can speak to.



Matthew Batty, Fresh Catch


Your work spans a lot of mediums, including sculpture and installation, but you often incorporate printmaking into those other mediums.

Printmaking is tied into the tradition of the dissemination of information, and I’m interested in that.  It also speaks to mass production, which is tied into environmental problems, like materialism. Printmaking is the beginning of a process for me to get from idea to flat surface and then to move forward with three dimensional objects. Recently I’ve been gravitating towards any photo process with printmaking.

You were born in New Orleans and raised in Florida. Do you think that your Southern upbringing shaped your work? Are there particular aesthetics or artistic mediums connected to the South that influenced you?

What gets called a southern aesthetic is really more of a rural aesthetic. When I lived in new Orleans when I was a child there were a lot of folk artists and musicians from there who all influenced me, although I didn’t realize it until I started coming to terms with who I was as an artist and what I really enjoyed. I’m interested in the idea of the outsider present in folk art and even jazz, and outsider art as this uneducated brilliance. There are occasions where it’s celebrated, like folk art museums. Folk originally meant people, it didn’t mean country or hokey, just everyday people, and I think that’s the idea that I really like is the inclusion of everybody, not just the elite, but also normal people who are introduced to art. I’m also influenced a lot by the punk community that I came out of in Florida, which has an outsider element to it as well.



Matthew Batty, Tupelo


Are there particular folk artists that have influenced you?

The first would be the artists I interned with at Yee Haw industries, in Knoxville, Tennessee, Kevin Bradley and Julie Belcher, they introduced me to letterpress. That’s what influenced me to get out of graphic design and following more of a passion than money. I’m also looking at Radcliffe Bailey, Rimer Cardillo, Margaret Kilgallen, Jules Buck Jones, and Kiki Smith. I’ve been really into Mark Dion lately, because his work deals with the natural world. He goes about it in a different way than I do –he uses the museum and the vocabulary the museum has created. It’s  also the natural history of the museum I’m interested in, like how he traverses hierarchies of lesser things like rocks to invertebrates to invertebrates to humans. That hierarchy is interesting for me because I think  that to get to a sustainable society we have to analyze that hierarchy and our place at its center. We come from a very anthropocentric viewpoint, and trying to move away from that is one of the keys to helping nature help itself.


Matthew st augustine dist

St. Augustine Distillery, St. Augustine, Florida.


You started off  as a graphic designer but are now working as an artist. You’re also a musician and curator. What are the relationships between your different modes of making?

A professor I had once told me that design is about finding solutions, and art is about asking questions. And I don’t want to propose that I have any solutions. Doing design was about solving a problem very easily with visuals, but I think I can take what I learned from that and try and create conversations. Curating the St. Augustine Distillery was also a design issue. A lot of my work is about collection in general, and that kind of allowed me in my art to figure out these objects and the beauty behind them, to give them a platform for their voice. A lot of my work has to do with investigation, like before I make work I do a lot of historical investigating, like in the project at the commerce center I started out researching the area, the industry of fur-trapping and how it developed the area, not just South bend but all of lower Michiana because it was very rich in fur-bearing animals. I think it was also coming to be an adult in  St. Augustine, Florida, which is the oldest city in the nation, and really influenced how I perceive history. As for music, it’s a very similar thing, I play a banjo, so it’s this common music, it relates back to the idea of folk and people. So I’ve been playing around with ways to incorporate it into my studio practice–I haven’t done it quite yet but I’m working on it.



Matthew in his installation.

Your installation at the Commerce Center, ‘Trapping the In Between,’ ties back to earlier work in terms of the interest in hunting and human relationships to natural resources, but it’s also one of your first site-specific installations. What did you try that was new, and what have you learned from the process?

I did do one site-specific installation, right before I came here, a collaboration with my friend Avery Collins. It was a sound piece, entitled ‘A Hum in g Modal,’ that we built an installation around, so that was the beginning of  integrating music into my work. ‘Trapping the In Between’ is an environment centered around a big idea, but every piece is different, they all relate. Also, I’ve never worked with light as much as I have this time around, which is always an interesting thing because it can fill a room with something pretty small, either casting a shadow or projecting. So using light is something that I’m very excited to try and keep working with. I think it was here that I’ve embraced this idea of nostalgia, whereas before when people used that word to talk about my work I was like ‘don’t do that.’ But it actually makes sense in that it’s not that I’m nostalgic, but the culture in general is—and in parts I am too, but I have this very realistic view of hunting as well. I’ve embraced it more here and am using it as a tool to create discomfort but also approachability.


For more of Matthew’s work, go to his website at http://www.marsupialalchemy.com/

Photo credit: Matthew Batty, Leah Gallant













By Leah Gallant

allison 3Allison Polgar with a recent self-portrait in her studio space at the Birdsell Mansion.

How have you seen your work change since you started making art?

I started drawing when I was a little kid, and it was this almost obsessive thing. I would fill notebook after notebook with mostly stupid stuff, like horses and mermaids and people. It was something I did constantly— I always had sketchbooks with me. Then I started taking art classes in middle school, mostly life drawing and painting and portraiture, and then went to school for art. In terms of how it’s changed, I now try to fit ideas or concepts into work that is typically just representational. In school, I started taking printmaking classes, so the idea of making duplicates has informed how I approach making work. In painting, you get a very direct result immediately, but in printmaking you have to go through this process, there isn’t as much wiggle room, once you start on a path you have to complete it. You don’t actually see what it looks like until you pull the paper off the press. It’s been interesting going back and forth between those two processes, because one is so process-driven and technical, while the other allows for more gesture and immediate gratification.


allison 2A well-used studio.

Has starting to work in printmaking changed how you paint? Or are they two separate processes?

They are separate, but I do see overlap, because while I really enjoy etching and intaglio processes, I also really like monotype. It’s very painterly but it’s also thinner or shallower –you can’t build up ink on a piece of plastic that you’re going to print—so it’s almost like a faster way to paint. I use cards and razor blades to make marks in the monotype process, and that’s something that I’ve started to carry into painting in the past few years.


N.O.(back door)
Allison Polgar, N.O. (back door)

Is there a particular painting you’ve used printmaking methods on?

My last series, the North Olmsted series, which I showed at the Birdsell’s winter opening, depicted these buildings around my hometown that I would only drive past because it was not a pedestrian-friendly area.  They’re very commercial and ugly and I would try to ignore them. Last summer and fall, my environment was really getting me down, and I started looking around and decided I need to confront this and not let it control me. So I started walking around and taking photographs of different buildings and spaces and then painting them, and I applied some of those processes that I’ve used in printmaking to get sharper edges.


Crazyhorse (Brookpark Rd)
Allison Polgar, Crazyhorse (Brookpark Rd.)

The North Olmsted series, as well as current work you’re doing for the Commerce Center, draw on subjects that relate to your own life and experiences. Is that a constant in your work?

I think it is. It took me a while to realize that’s what I was doing, but I definitely do draw from whatever is happening to me or whatever psychological stuff I’m trying to deal with.  It does get channeled into what I want to make, which is sometimes not what I don’t want to make but what I don’t really enjoy making. For example, I did a couple of paintings a while ago of rural landscapes, highways, and overpasses. I was in a long distance relationship and I was driving across Ohio all the time, and that’s what I was seeing, so that’s the imagery I started working with— even though I hate landscapes, I don’t like painting them. In a way, at least with the current series, I’m getting more insular. The North Olmsted series depicted the environment that I grew up in, but the self portraits I’m doing for the Commerce Center is much more me. It’s becoming more and more focused on the self.

What are you taking from a long history of portraiture in Western painting and what are you bringing that’s new?

At this point I don’t know how much new I can bring to self portraiture, given the fact that so many artists have done it. The genre seems kind of indicative of just trying to figure yourself out. I feel like when I do a self portrait, especially when it’s from life, it’s this time where everything else goes away and it’s just me looking at myself in a mirror. When I paint then I actually am able to create a lot of distance from myself, which is weird because I’m so focused on my visual image.


self portrait_3Allison Polgar, Self Portrait #3

Your current body of work for the Commerce Center is about your Catholic upbringing. Can you talk more about your plans for the space?

In my space, ‘the dungeons,’ there are six cylinders along one wall. My plan is to fill each of the cylinders with a bunch of things: paintings, self portraits of me dressed up as different saints, and castings of a garden statue-sized Virgin Mary. I was home schooled and raised Catholic, so what I’m thinking about with those is this very specific childhood memory of celebrating All Saints Day. I would get to choose a saint, dress up as them, and then go and hang out with a bunch of other Catholic home school kids, and we’d all be saints for the day. I don’t really go to church anymore, so I’m trying to deal with how this was such a huge part of my upbringing. I’m interested in the performative ridiculousness of having kids dress up as saints. I remember always having fun at the All Saints Day celebrations, so I’m trying to keep a childlike quality to the installation. As for the castings, I’m also thinking about these icons as commercial objects—even though they represent these divine saints or ideas, you have to cough up money for them, and then put the statues under your front window. I’m also interested in how making multiples of the same thing puts more distance between the original object and the artist.

Ok, I like asking this question: what is the worst art object you’ve ever made?

How to choose? There are a lot!  I did this one woodblock print in my first printmaking class—it was a self-portrait, and the theme was dreams and nightmares. I had this really vivid dream that involved a tiger, so half of the print was a generalized version of my face and the other half was a tiger.


Photo credit: Leah Gallant, Allison Polgar




By Leah Gallant


Bryce in ‘the pit,’ his installation space at the Commerce Center.

In your bio statement, you write that your work focuses on “’making things’ and ‘making things happen’ in the studio and in the public domain.” What’s the connection between your more stationary art objects and social practice work?

The thing that unites all my work is an interest in community as both a concept and a medium. Working with actual communities and seeing what sort of impacts can be had through art as intervention is really interesting to me. But I also think about discrete art objects, more studio- or gallery–oriented art, as a place for meditation on community, social structures, and civic structures. So one is a thinking space and one is a doing space, and they feed off of one another.


Some of your work as an art instructor seems to parallel your own practice in terms of community engagement. For example, for the Institute for Progressive Humanities’ summer partnership with Kinloch Learning Center, you had students design and build their own doghouses, which were then auctioned off to raise funding for the Center’s programming. How does your teaching relate to your own process of making?

Teaching keeps me energized about making things. I don’t like to work in a cloistered set-apart space, I like active shared spaces–I never have my own studio. For me, so much of teaching is modeling the behaviors that we’re trying to instill in our students. So if I want my students to be active, hardworking, and investigative, then I need to do those things, and there’s no better way to do that than to invite them to participate in my activities and those of other artists in the area. The doghouse project was at the tail end of a year of community based work in Kinloch, a traditionally all-black city within St. Louis County, which has arisen as the result of racial segregation. As part of the Kinloch project we adopted this friendly stray dog named Fred. When we realized he had heartworm disease and it would take around a thousand dollars to treat him, we saw the opportunity to use Fred as the lynchpin for a fundraising campaign for both the dog and the learning center. So we had students from Washington University come in and design build these doghouses and auction them off. We raised nearly seven thousand dollars for the center and cured Fred. Underneath all of that I’m interested in St. Louis and desegregation, and the history of that is always tied up in bussing—meaning bussing low income students to better schools, which are predominantly white. So I really enjoyed the opportunity to take my white privileged students and bus them to what is believed to be the center of poverty in the city of St. Louis, and have them realize that these people are people, and they’re just like them. So there’s a subversive bent there as well.


Fred the dog, Kinloch Learning Center community members, and a doghouse built by students to raise funding for Fred’s surgery and the Center’s programming.

You work with a wide range of materials, using really durable materials for outdoor sculptures but also incorporating performance, air, branding, etc. into other pieces. How do you match material to concept?

I’m really interested in materiality—texture, weight, and line, but also the metaphor and baggage that comes with different materials. So the work in the Commerce Center is in many ways very selfish, because for me it’s just a tremendous pleasure to work with this stuff that’s very light and reusable. So sometimes the material has more to do with my pleasure–I really love to weld and I love to do woodworking. Sometimes it’s about making and enjoying that making experience and being rewarded physically and mentally. With the more conceptual, gallery-driven work, that’s rewarding in a different way. It’s more of an intellectual gratification of finding the right element to communicate a very specific sensation or suggest an attitude or a perspective. It’s just different ways of gratifying that need, the need to make something communicate. It’s across the board because it’s both a physical reward and an intellectual reward I’m interested in.



bryce_brand1Bryce Robinson, #Ferguson

Recently you’ve been making work that relates to your hometown in Ferguson, Missouri. How does your relationship to the community inform this body of work?

All of the recent work that deals with Ferguson is obviously very directly related to my unique perspective as someone from Ferguson, and someone who is still very deeply connected there. I run Jeske Sculpture Park there, my family still lives there, and I go back and forth quite frequently, so it was an interesting experience to be here in South Bend working at Notre Dame watching on CNN live feed what was happening at home. The work about Ferguson was mostly born of frustration with not only what happened but how it happened. It’s very difficult to see the media portray a community you’re very proud of in a way that isn’t accurate. I think it was really important that the conversation about violence against young African-American men and women happened—it’s an important issue that needs to be addressed—but Ferguson is certainly not the center of racial injustice in the United States. So the piece dealing with branding. ‘#Ferguson,’ talks about how my community has been permanently branded by people who are not from the city of Ferguson.



Bryce Robinson, Suburban Laboratory

How does your work on Ferguson relate to your own racial identity?

I grew up and lived in a community that’s predominantly African American. I don’t identify as African American, but I think that a lot of unfair associations that are projected on African American people in North St. Louis County have also been projected onto me and my community at large. People from other parts of the region perpetuate the idea of North St Louis County as a lower-income, poor, disenfranchised place, and regardless of your race, in the city of St. Louis, if you say that you’re from North County, people associate you with being poor, and assume that if you’re not black you certainly must live by black people. So though I’m not black, I think that my perception of my community and where I grew up is inextricably tied to how black people are unfairly perceived, and I see the fate of my community really tied to the fate of the African American community in St. Louis. Through all the research that I did when I was in graduate school and leaving graduate school, I got a greater understanding of how racism has really shaped St. Louis into what it is today. I think because of that history, it’s a weaker community than it could be. It’s certainly not a place of equality, but I think there’s a tremendous opportunity in that, you know, that we can identify those problems and work to right them.



Bryce Robinson, Rising Hive

Your piece in the Commerce Center uses the same materials as ‘Rising Hive,’ and is part of a larger body of work that explores hives and structures and how smaller parts or individuals can form a cohesive group. What do you hope building a structure in the 14-ft pit will bring to the larger project or your interests in community as medium?

I became interested in this thing called emergence theory, which is this idea that a bunch of unthinking components doing their thing can lead to complex, sophisticated higher-level behavior. Cells in your body, for example, or ants in a hive do this–what seem like small or unthinking actions can lead to a more interesting result in a larger organism or system. It’s going to have a different title, but it’s the same sort of material, which is perforated steel shelving, laboratory glass, and some components I fabricated myself. I’m really interested in the restrictions of the material I’m working with—I’ve set a rule that I never cut the glass, although I accidentally break glass from time to time. By using it in these different spaces and conditions, I hope to see what naturally arises out of these little interactions and little individual decisions. I’m really interested in using this material and expanding on it as a building kit, and seeing over the course of the years what sorts of different iterations arise as a result of my work with it. I was really drawn to the space I’m working in in the Commerce Center, which is incredibly inhospitable. The work here in the Commerce Center isn’t really about Ferguson, but I think it certainly relates in dealing with a tremendous set of challenges and seeing if we can get a positive outcome as a result of countless individual actions.


For more of Bryce’s work, go to his website at http://www.bryceolenrobinson.com/

Photo credit: Bryce Robinson, Leah Gallant

By Leah Gallant

andrewAndrew laying out sugar on the floor of his installation space at the Commerce Center.


How did you get involved with the Birdsell Project?

I went to Whitman College with Nalani Stolz, one of the co-organizers. After she moved back to South Bend and connected with this developer to start the project, she called me up and invited me to install work in the first show, which opened in December 2014 in the Birdsell Mansion, as well as help with some of the logistical aspects of the project. In January, I started working with the project to conceptualize and implement the artist residency program.

How did you become interested in working with cartography and space as the primary focuses in your art?

I studied environmental studies in college, and it’s conceptually connected to that— I took a lot of classes that were analyzing social situations and interactions with nature and landscapes. I was always attracted to the maps in books that I was reading, as well as the diagrams, of people and transportation systems. I also have this inherent attraction to that sort of imagery. When I was little I collected atlases—that was what I would ask for every Christmas.

andrew cartographies
Andrew Strong, New and Altered Cartographies


What’s your favorite project that you’ve done?

The piece I’m most proud of is probably ‘New and Altered Cartographies,’ in which I explored concepts of mapmaking. As part of the project I took state road maps and cut out everything except for the roads and highway systems, so I cut out all the spaces in between. I was left with these giant networks of roads that floated on their own, kind of like spider webs, and then I used that as my material to sculpt with. It was a funny process because it required a lot of patience—over the course of three or four months I just really dedicated myself to that task of cutting up the maps, and it wasn’t until the last one or two weeks where the structure really came together. It also had this conceptual integrity, because it included two videos that looked at micro to macro levels of map making, but all of the maps were then altered in these different ways, and I think the three pieces worked really nicely together. One of the videos is an exploration through Google Earth. During its early stages of Google Earth, Google was creating three dimensional models on top of their satellite images. At the beginning of every technological advancement there are these glitches and things that need to work through, and so I was kind of exploring this pre-refined landscape. It ended up having a lot of similarities with the sculpture, which was in front of the videos. The other video was of this small bug walking along a computer cord, and I thought that this was so funny that of all the places he chose to walk, he chose to walk along this structure that had been laid out before him. I followed him for about twenty minutes.

It seems like some of your work uses personal maps as a beginning point, such as ‘Line’ and ‘Map of current clothing,’ whereas others are less about you and your self. 

It’s often easier to just work from yourself and from your own experiences than it is to catalogue data and try to compile that into some sort of map that is interesting because there’s so many other factors that go into that. When you’re focusing on yourself, the scope becomes a lot narrower. So it’s easier because you don’t have as many factors going on. That being said, I would love to eventually move into the kind of work where I’m incorporating a lot of data that I’m pulling from different places.


andrew map
Andrew Strong, Map of Current Clothing


I’m drawn to the more performative elements of some of your pieces, such as ‘Line’, where you traced your route over the course of a day in tape. You document it through video, but it’s also interesting as an experiential or performance-based piece. How do you think about bringing in other ways of making to the production of art objects or videos that can be shown in a formal gallery space? 

I think for the most part my work is much more about the production experience than it is about the end result. There is a general aesthetic that I’m working towards that’s informed by artists I admire that are doing work that’s clean and minimal, but that is produced by a specific action or task. An example of this was my piece, ‘Winter Collection,’ for the show at the South Bend Museum of Art whose focus was the city of South Bend. I had been living here during the winter months, and it was the first time I had ever lived somewhere snowy. It’s a pretty incredibly snowy place during the winter, and I didn’t have a car or any form of transportation, so I would walk everywhere through these huge snow drifts. It slowed down the experience of moving through space, and I think that’s something I’m really aware of, and something that a lot of my work turns to. So I was collecting these objects that I would find in the snow drifts, and the piece itself was the experience, but the end result was a sculpture that went into the show that cataloged these objects that I found.

Who are some of your influences?

Artists like Maya Lin, or Nina Katchadourian, although Nina Katchadourian’s work is pretty simple because she uses very fine materials and also restricts her material choice. Her artwork is also very much about the process of making.


andrew erosion
Andrew Strong’s installation at the Birdsell Mansion, Erosion and Excavation

What are your plans for your space at the Commerce Center?

I had a few different plans but the idea I’m moving forward with now centers around the texture of flour and sugar. What I’ve been doing is laying them out on the ground of my spaces, which form perfect circles, and using them to highlight the texture of the floor and build a topography. It’s a little bit about the material, but it’s primarily about the aesthetic. I really want something clean and simple because these are such dramatic spaces that I’m working in–they’re tall and dark and confined. But there’s also something very calming about being in them, and so I’m playing with those two things.

Say you had $50,000 and a year to spend on a project. What would you do?

I think I would travel to various cities I’ve never been to around the world, and find some interesting way to catalogue their layout that’s different from the way that we see their layout in online maps or books. I would probably just spend the time experiencing the place and wandering the city and observing it, and maybe do some performative art in those cities. It’s funny actually, performance art, because it’s not something that I’m totally comfortable with, I think that it’s something that has happened as a result of my interest in producing work that’s experience based, but it’s very challenging to me. I like working with people but I think that art is also a very insular process, and it takes a lot of time to think through an idea, and so just doing something and putting the process out there is a daunting task. But I also find it to be rewarding.


For more of Andrew’s work, go to his website at http://www.andrewstrong.net/ .

Photo credit: Andrew Strong, Leah Gallant

By Leah Gallant

Hunter in the men’s locker room, his installation space at the Commerce Center.


In an earlier conversation you said something along the lines of, “I look at some relationships and object relationships through a lens of sex and sexuality.” There are a few objects, gestures, and materials that you work with a lot, including plungers, wrapped canvas paintings, and dog toys. What do plungers signify in your work, and how did you first start using them?

That’s kind of tricky, because at first I wanted to make something kind of pop, like an overgrown plunger. I wanted to make a thing that looked like a plunger, but used materials that would never be associated with one, and was too big for use. I wanted it to signify other things too, so I called it ‘Rose,’ and it kind of looks like a flower. I’m also interested, when it comes to reading sex and sexuality through objects, in the plunger as a domestic object that could be used for multiple purposes. For example, if a plunger sucks shit out of a toilet, what else can it suck? I’m using the art object to trace through a multiplicity of significations. This piece, through material and title, implies a kind of inside-out orientation of the body, a reversal, an insides pushed and forced out through a certain collapse. That kind of motion is similar to what happens in a toilet when it gets clogged. So I’m interested in what happens when the body gets turned inside out, when we see what’s not normally seen. And that might instill fear, shame, desire, pleasure, all of these things that are contradictory and unknowable. But that abject-ness is only signified in my work, it’s not represented.



Hunter Foster, Rose



Would you say these objects and images function as symbols?

No, they’re not symbols, they’re objects that signify. They’re objects that have a firm material presence in the world and the way the body approaches them. But in that encounter it also conjures up relationships between the body and the object and different objects and other bodies, that are both physical and textual. Their meanings bounce back and forth. Symbols work differently for me than that, their meaning seems more singular.

Your titles carry a lot of the meaning in the gap between the title and how the art object appears or what it’s made out of. 

I’m interested in how you used the word ‘gap.’ I use the title to cross and bridge a certain gap in relationship to the art object, but also to widen and complicate it. I usually want titles to point to an opposite direction than the work. I want to disrupt any kind of context the objects could be in to complicate any desire that the viewer might have in trying to connect a piece to a narrative. It also has a lot to do with fragmentation, which I think is pretty fundamental to how I find myself in relationship to a queer subjectivity. A drawing called ‘Bouquet’ that is shown with the rose piece, for example, is a drawing of a dog with a therapy cone, which itself is covered in drawings of roses. When I have an installation of separate works, I usually try to bridge connections between the works through titles. So the rose sculpture could point back to the dog drawing, and that could point back to that sculpture and then the other sculptures on the floor, which are called ‘Bulbs,’ and which is made out of actual plungers. I’m planting the viewers in this installation of objects, and there’s a cross-firing of signals going on all around them through the titles and materials.


Hunter Foster, Bouquet



How much do you want or expect the viewer to take away from the layers of meaning in your work?

Sometimes I have no idea. But I do hope that they will get a sense of a life and a sexuality and a gender that is very embodied and laden with desire, but that’s very complicated. The identity of the subject of the work isn’t stable, it’s precarious.

You mentioned that some of your influences include feminist fiber artists as well as more contemporary queer artists.  I read a lot of second wave feminist art as having a very explicit meaning—artists like Judy Chicago want the viewer to take away certain statements about sexuality, gender, and patriarchy. When I think of Robert Gober and Jim Hodges, it does seem like there’s a queer aesthetic that’s carried through certain motions, like making flower chains, or remaking household objects like sinks out of some other material, but their work is much less didactic—there’s a pretty big difference in terms of opening vs. closing questions, of making statements vs. more ambiguous gestures. What do you take from each of those art historical groupings?

It’s kind of all about context, right, Robert Gober probably wouldn’t have made that same work in the sixties and the seventies that he was making in the nineties. To annotate your question a little bit, I think I’m generally more influenced by the craft and fiber movement than I am specifically by second wave feminist art, although I am very influenced by body art and performance art in terms of centering the gendered body as political. In terms of the craft movement and the fiber movement, I’m interested in materials that are gendered and systematically devalued. And I’m interested in the historical moment of the fight they had to do, which is of course related to women’s labor, domestic labor, and reproductive labor. But I’m also interested in a different art historical vein that could be thought of as in the closet—Agnes Martin, Ellsworth Kelley, and others who made abstract and silent works but whose subjectivities aren’t often encouraged to be interpreted through the work. I’m interested in the idea that reading into a work like that is projecting and is not art historically valid. In their recent art historical work on queer abstraction, David Getsy and Jennifer Doyle say that positions the inside of the works as something that we don’t have access to.



Hunter Foster, Bulbs


What are your plans for your space at the Commerce Center, where you’re installing work in an abandoned men’s’ locker room?

I’m thinking about the architecture and design disparities between the men’s locker room and the women’s locker room. I’m working in what used to be an athletic club that was open in the late eighties and nineties, making gestural edits to the architecture of the space, and through placed objects in the space. The architecture seems to be designed for men to be social with each other, to be looking at and exposing their bodies to each other, and stands in stark contrast to what kinds of activities seem to permitted in the women’s locker room. I’m interested in the ways that architecture is shaped and shapes gendered bodies. One thing I’m doing is in the shower room I’m flipping every other tile on the floor upside down, and I’m flipping every other ceiling tile upside down, so you end up theoretically with a space that’s half upside down. I’m also planting a rose garden in the hot tub and turning that garden into a miniature sculpture park that will include replicas that I make of sculptures by queer artists in my cosmology.



The locker room in its initial state.


What, in the folly of your youth, is the worst art object you’ve ever made?

Sophomore year I was sticking a bunch of feathers through paintings. I was poking holes in paintings and sticking feathers right through them, and I was like, ‘why don’t you get it, this is brilliant,’ and no one really got it. I wanted them to fly! I was trying to give them wings.


Photo credit: Hunter Foster, Leah Gallant

For more of Hunter’s work, visit his website at http://www.hunterjfoster.com/ .

By Leah Gallant

Nayeon Yang is an interdisciplinary artist from South Korea. Through installation, performance, video, and participatory artworks, she explores the body as a site where memory and the passage of time are recorded. She is an MFA candidate at Ohio State University and holds a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

nayeon.2 Nayeon in her installation space in the men’s locker room in the Commerce Center.


How did you first start working with performance art?

I went to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where there was a very good performance art program, but I didn’t really take any classes in it. I was making some performative sculptural work that was very personal and private. When my professors saw it, they told me to take video and performance classes. But I’m a very shy person, so I said ‘no, no, I can’t.’ And then when I graduated, I finally admitted that my work is related to performance art. I decided to work at Defibrillator, the performance art gallery in Chicago, and through that I learned a lot about what performance art could be.

Nayeon Yang, Permeation:  (De)composing a Territory


Your portfolio is divided into sections that together form a full sentence: ‘I/ left home / to learn to become / an-other to you.’ How do each of those phrases relate to your practice?

The idea I’m really pursuing is about meeting people as a person and trying to figure out the boundary between us,  how the boundary is created, and if, by recognizing it, we can respect and overcome it. I go back and forth working in all those categories.  ‘Left home’ is about me. That section is more like talking to myself–it’s about self-expression more than communication. ‘To learn to become’ is about a practice of removing the ‘I’, or self. I figured out that when I was trying to express myself, I didn’t recognize who I was talking to. To remove myself, I focused on bodily mechanisms that all human beings have. So my body did not have to say anything about me, but served as an anonymous body that stated being present. For example, ‘Permeation: (De)composing a Territory’ is a video performance work where I tried to remove myself just by breathing. I was in a clear plastic box in the woods in winter, so when I breathed, the condensation made me become slowly invisible in the box. Now I see myself not as an individual but also as a part of society, part of culture, so that’s become the subject of most of my current practice. ‘An-other to you’ is about my existence in relationship to my surroundings.

nayeon_yang_borderline01Nayeon Yang, Borderline


‘Otherness’ or ‘the other’—race, nationality, gender, etc. when deviant from a white male norm—has been both a subject for artists to lift up social issues and a way to pigeonhole artists who might possess any of those identities – by saying, for example, that women artists can only make art about being a woman. Some of your work deals with your identities and some is less specific. What is the role of ‘otherness’ both in how you think about your work and how it’s been perceived by viewers?

I don’t need to recognize myself as an Asian or a woman. But I know I am recognized in those categories, and that’s often a difficulty for me. I don’t want to only make work about elaborating my own boundary because that would hardly open conversations. We are all different from each other, living in different and various boundaries. So, I rather want to focus on “how” my boundaries cross over “yours”. I’m trying to point out there’s actually no “you” without “I”. “You” and / or “They” can mean a group of people that is defined by social, cultural, political boundaries. I want to navigate myself, regardless of the given boundaries, where ‘I’ exist not to label “you” or “them” as the others. So, I am trying to encounter people as individuals first, as much as I try to be recognized as an individual rather than an Asian female artist. But sometimes, it is a necessity to use my given boundaries as a tool;  if I want to say “let’s overcome the boundary”, I have to point the boundary out. ‘Borderline,’ for example, was a performance piece where I was naked in a room covered in mylar and I held a security mirror tilted so I could make eye contact with the audience behind me. They were facing my back, but they could see my eyes in the mirror, and that was about not just the male gaze but about protest of rape issues in college, asking questions of boundary and autonomy of a body.

Nayeon Yang, Olympia, documentation of participants


Your piece ‘Olympia’ exemplifies for me questioning the idea of ‘you’ as a monolithic group. You wrote that that piece is “concerned with an authorship of a body that is violated by an image, more particularly, by ways to observe, exhibit, and market otherness such as different gender, culture, race, and class.” But rather than make yourself the subject of these questions and identities in your work, you deflect them onto the audience-participants. Particularly with your participatory performance pieces, you have these set-ups that make the art viewers the performers; they’re the ones performing for you. So who is the audience in your work?

In that piece, I performed as a photographer, and like in Manet’s ‘Olympia,’ I was totally naked, wearing high heels and a black ribbon necklace. I invited and asked them to pose like Olympia, and then photographed them, gave them the printed photo, and paid them one dollar. I was hoping to give them the time to think about and choose their role in the performance during and after their participation. I said I was a photographer and called them models. But the performance already implied that we were not in a photo studio, I was not a photographer, and they were not models. In that sense, they were not quite “performing”. My audience were the individuals encountering  familiar scenes in unfamiliar way. They interacted with my performance. Of course, I am thinking about the secondary audience who’s going to experience just the photos, not the actual performance.

Also complicating this idea of audience, the work is documented not only for documentation’s sake, but also for the participants – they are given a snapshot of themselves. Documentation becomes a part of the work itself.

Yes, documentation is a part of the work but not the work itself. I have to address that this is part of the work; what secondary audience experiences through the documentation can be very different from what my participants experience in person.


nayeon 2  Nayeon Yang, Emotion of Histories/ History of Emotions, photo by Sandra Derr



It seems like a way of propelling a piece forward as it unfolds in time. In ‘Emotion of Histories / Histories of Emotions,’ the documentation, in the forms of postcards from the audience members, goes on to fuel the next part of the work.

Developing this piece, it triggered me to think about how to document things that I can’t really document. After that, all my pieces include documentation as a part of my performance. It’s about finding what’s not being archived. Once something has been written it can be shared, and it often becomes a structure of a hierarchy. So I thought about what’s not being recorded, and therefore is disregarded. Smell has a really powerful element that triggers the memory, but there’s no way to record it using current technology. Because scent triggers very different things for individuals, I tried to use actual people as sites to record a smell. I then invited them to write their memory on a postcard and send it to my mom. So when she got all the postcards she emotionally responded to that— not necessarily the individual postcards but the idea of smell, and then the idea of me being in a foreign country. And she thought that probably I’m just lonely here and I have been missing family in Korea, and cooking is the best thing she could do for me, so she’s going to come over and cook for me. And after that project I really questioned what documentation meant–how documentation varies the interpretations and how documentation can archive what’s not perceived and recorded.

For more of Nayeon’s work, go to http://navelnayeon.com/

Photo credit: Leah Gallant, Nayeon Yang, Sandra Derr.

By Leah Gallant

nalani 1.2 Nalani in her installation space in the Commerce Center.

You started off as a painter, but now make more sculptural and installation-based work. How do you think your training informed your current work?

I started out as a really figurative painter because I was interested in people and the human form. When I got to Whitman College, I took more sculpture classes, but my sculpture work began as figurative too. As I looked at more work, I realized I was really drawn to people like Doris Salcedo or Mona Hatoum—artists who use objects like chairs and beds that relate to or represent figures. So I challenged myself to take the figure out of my work and use these other objects to represent people. I still think my background as a painter has been really helpful in terms of composition and other formal elements. And it showed up in my installation at the Birdsell, where I was doing watercolor paintings on the walls. It was nice to find a way to integrate painting back into installation.

birdsell.140 Nalani’s installation at the Birdsell, Weathered Walls


You’ve mentioned that your work is influenced by the gender studies classes you took while at Whitman College. Do you think going to a liberal arts school shaped your practice in other ways?

I think going to a liberal arts school was really important to my work. I was able to take a lot of other classes, such as gender studies, and be around people who were thinking about those ideas, but not through art. I think part of how that experience shaped my work is the idea of the personal being political. That was an idea that I first found more through feminist writing and oral histories. In some of my pieces it’s more blatant, such as ‘Small Spaces,’ a group of ceramic dresses.  It’s about how we perform our gender and are confined to certain gender roles, and that’s why I used this really hard material for the piece. The dresses are both cages that you get stuck in, but also this defense mechanism or armor.

Stolz_N_10 Nalani Stolz, Small Spaces


Unlike some artists whose work deals with gender and the domestic sphere, you don’t limit yourself to traditionally feminine materials and ways of making—you not only work in ceramics and sewing, but also wood, cement, etc. What’s the relationship between your materials and subject matter?

In painting, the material is a given, and it’s all about choosing the subject matter. So when I transitioned to sculpture, the material began to define the subject itself. I often start by finding a material that I’m interested in. I’ll see a chair that I’m really excited about, or the texture and color of the tea, and then that serves as a jumping off point for the rest of the work.

DSCN2659 Nalani Stolz, Rupture

Your recent work, ‘Rupture,’ which was included in the South Bend Selfie show at the South Bend Museum of Art, feels much less representational than your other work – it’s more about material and abstracted form. Do you think you’re turning away from using recognizable objects in your work?

I’m not necessarily moving in that direction, but I am continually trying to find the balance between having a really recognizable object but also transforming it enough that it becomes something new. Having these recognizable objects is a way for people to enter the work and relate to it, and it certainly influences the way that I interact with everyday objects now. By thinking of them as art material, I continue to approach objects differently because I always see that potential, and I hope it does the same thing for people who interact with the work.

You fill a lot of roles at the Birdsell Project—you’re a working artist yourself, but you also run the show. How does working on the administrative side of an arts organization shape your own practice? Or is it just giving you less time to work on things?

Having less time has actually been a good influence on me because it’s forced me to be more decisive—I have to be more efficient in my process. At the same time, I think it’s been necessary to have the art process, because it is very different from the administrative side, and it gives me a chance to really slow down again. In addition, looking at so many people’s work and reading what they have to say about their art has been a really nice way of relating to other artists and thinking more about what people here in the city are making. It’s made art-making a less solitary process.

nalani 2.2 Nalani will be installing in the Cavern beneath the Commerce Center.

You and the rest of the Birdsell crew have already done an incredible job of bringing the art scene you want to see in South Bend here by starting this really impressive project. What do you like about the state of the arts here, and what opportunities would you like to see for South Bend artists?

There are a lot of people doing interesting things for the arts, and it does feel like a supportive community already. When we started the Birdsell Project, there were a couple of people who said, “You guys are crazy, what are you doing,” but overwhelmingly people have been really supportive and interested in getting involved. I think the fact that Steve Mihaljevic (Owner of the Birdsell Mansion) and David Matthews (Owner of the Commerce Center) are willing to let us use their buildings for this project, shows the kind of opportunities and support that do exist in this community. And what we quickly learned during the application process for the first show was how many artists there are in South Bend who are making really interesting work. We really owe the success of our first show, and this project, to all the artists who participated and the incredible work they installed.

In South Bend there are so many exciting opportunities for repurposing unused buildings here. People have been doing this already–we’re definitely not the first ones. Colfax Campus and Notre Dame Center for Art and Culture are both in rehabbed buildings that are now art spaces. Lang Lab influenced us a lot. In terms of opportunities for artists, there are a lot of connections between the South Bend art scene and the universities, but I think there’s always room for more. Also, I think creating opportunities for emerging artists and finding ways to connect people who are already working is important. And by just jumping into this, not really knowing what we’re doing but learning it along the way, my hope is that it’ll influence other people to do similar things.

What’s the most ridiculous thing you’re willing to share from behind the scenes with the Birdsell Project?

Since we’re very short on funds we decided to cater the closing reception for the Birdsell installation ourselves. We borrowed the Purple Porch Coop’s kitchen after they closed at night, which meant starting cooking at 9pm.  The day before the reception, we were up until 5:30am making food. And then we brought it all back to my family’s house and stuffed it in the refrigerator, and my brother proceeded to accidentally eat half of our desserts. He ate all the brownies that were meant for the whole reception. We found him very ill-feeling the next morning, so then my mom ended up jumping in and making a ridiculous amount of brownies. But it worked out, and people liked the food!


Photo credit: Nalani Stolz, Peter Ringenberg, and Leah Gallant

By Leah Gallant

So Hee will be installing work in a swimming pool in the basement of the Commerce Center.



You studied painting at the Rhode Island School of Design, but have recently been working in installation as well. Was there a turning point where you started making installations rather than paintings?

I first made an installation for the show ‘Bruises/Birthmarks.’ I tried to translate what was going on in the planes of my paintings and turn them into space. I wanted to grab the gestures that were happening in the paintings and put them into materials, so I hung them all together, and they ended up being an installation.


So Hee Kim, Blue and its Edges and Depths
How do you see the relationship between those two mediums?

I try to draw on my cultural and physical environments and interpret them in whatever medium I find. But I think my paintings and installations are very different, because although they might look like they could’ve been made by the same person, the way they are performed or even their formal qualities are very different. For example, the paintings are more formal because they are all on the wall, the sizes are all similar, and they have an all-over composition. I think the problem or difficulty in painting is I fall into the habit of already visualizing what a painting might look like. I felt like I was copying the aesthetics of some of the artists I look up to, like Cy Twombly. So I think my goal now is to free my paintings from the wall and make something that is more a fabric of space-time—that’s the next step.  A similarity between the two is that in installations, I still think about the framing, the plane, and the wall a lot, because I use that to build onto space as if I’m painting in three dimensions. On the other hand, when I try to move from installations into paintings, I find a bit of difficulty because a lot of my installations are derived from something very visible and physical to the space. They might refer to a video, or a previous painting that I’ve made.

saltpepper So Hee Kim, Salt and Pepper


Your paintings are really loose and gestural and make use of color and mixed media, like salt and pepper packets. But at the same time, everything is ultimately confined to a stretched canvas, bringing an underlying sense of order that I don’t see in your installations, which are much more entropic—more Jason Rhoades than Sarah Sze. What are the roles of order and disorder in your work?

I realized that when I was done with all my work, after my year was over. I think that’s so true of my practice. I guess I’ve never really been too conscious of order or disorder, it was just the materiality that shaped the work –like the paint or the canvas.

You’ve mentioned that some of your other influences include Tom Sachs, Cy Twombly, Dieter Roth, and Shinro Ohtake. What’s your interest in how each of them uses materiality in their work?

A lot of my work is based on the ‘making’ part. I just keep making and the material that I work with helps to give the piece a context or focus. I like Cy Twombly’s use of linguistic material to show the possibility of expressing that as a material quality. I started thinking about the ketchup, or salt and pepper, or mustard, because it’s so literal and direct. With Dieter Roth, I know he started writing a lot of poems and short stories before he started making sculptures, drawings, and installations. I really like how he takes all his working habits or processes and documents everythng, or makes videos of all of them, and then in the end he fills the space with all the traces of working, all the furniture and things from the studio. It’s very moving to me because it seems so alive.

So Hee Kim, Mad Ketchup


What are you thinking about doing for your installation space at the pool?

Right now, I’m making a lot of swatches to make cut-outs for the space. There are various options in my head I want to try out, but my first idea was to make a pool of memory, where I could put everything that I’m thinking about— putting all of my confusions in the pool, just making it immensely packed with stuff.  I think for the pool it’s a really great opportunity for me. Instead of taking the idea of a painting and translating it from 2D to 3D or 3D to 2D, I have the opportunity to work from something new.




In her introduction to the winter 2015 show ‘The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World, ’ the first major show of recent paintings at MOMA in over forty years, curator Laura Hoptman notes that in much contemporary painting, there is an “a-historical free-for-all…where all eras co-exist.” Where do you see the medium heading in the next few decades, and why are you still working in the medium?

I think I could be one of the few people who still believes that modernism is not over yet. I do believe in the possibility of painting, but we also need a new move. To me, the reason I still paint is I feel like it gives me a lot—it allows me to move in different directions, but I always come back to this medium if I get lost somewhere else.


For more of So Hee’s work, go to her website at https://www.behance.net/skim26.

Photo credit: So Hee Kim and Leah Gallant



By Leah Gallant

Liam Cawley is an emerging artist working primarily in oil on panel with sculptural and multimedia elements. His work explores the relationship between the religious and the secular in contemporary society, and between fine art and liturgical art. He graduated from Notre Dame University  in 2015, and currently lives and works in South Bend, Indiana.

For WordPress

Liam poses in his installation space at the Commerce Center.

Much of your work draws on Catholic imagery and references. How does your faith drive your work? How do you see your work in relationship to canonical Western Christian art?

I first started dealing with spiritual and religious themes—and therefore also Christian themes—a couple of years ago. I had a realization that I think a lot of artists—Albert Herbert comes to mind—who deal with those sorts of themes had at some point in their lives, which is that I am a religious person. It’s part of my identity, it’s just a certain quality that I have, and I wanted to make art that was true to that quality. That’s when I made the self-portrait piece, ‘Night Call to Samuel,’ which is about that realization, and also about vocation in general. However, just because I’m making work that draws on this long history of Christian art doesn’t mean that I want to just engage with the West. Especially since I am a Catholic, which is the universal church that’s spread across the globe, I think that element of my religion will lend itself to making work that could be appreciated by a number of different cultures. One role model that I could look to is the Estonian Orthodox composer Arvo Pärt. The New York Times recently praised his music’s quality of an almost universal spiritualism that still did not deny his own specific religion.

Liam art--Night Call to Samuel

Liam Cawley, Night Call to Samuel


A lot of art in the canon was produced under a very specific relationship between artists and the church. What are your thoughts on being an artist, and a Catholic, and a Catholic artist in 2015, when there’s a very different relationship between the Church and the state, as well as between artists and benefactors of contemporary art?

It certainly makes the art world more diverse, which I think is a good thing. However, I think there’s a perceived rift between art and the church. The late St. John Paul II wrote about this in his 1999 letter to artists, in which he emphasizes his desire for the church and the arts to have a relationship again where the church valued contemporary artists and contemporary artists considered the church in a more serious way than how a lot of people today do. This is also similar to a sentiment that Neo-Marxist sociologist Jürgen Habermas has put forth in his theory on a post-secular society, which is that the project of secularism, which is a mainly European project, and is based in Enlightenment values that believes that reason will overtake religion, has not succeeded, and this can be seen in the Eurocentric nature of that claim, where in global society religion still plays a very important role for most people across the globe. So Jürgen Habermas and Pope John Paul II would have both wanted to see a society where religion has no institutionalized place perhaps in the secular square but is not silenced in the secular square. I think Jürgen Habermas said something along the lines of ‘to disclude religious voices in the public square is distinctly illiberal.’ And I think that extends to the art world in a sense. I don’t feel as though I’m being particularly excluded—I was given a place at this residency; I haven’t had a heck of a lot of opposition at Notre Dame (which probably isn’t very surprising). But I know that there is a trend, which I encountered first in James Elkins’ book, ‘On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art,’ against religious ideas in contemporary art. But there’s also a sociological trend and in some ways an artistic trend towards their consideration.

When I think of most of the contemporary artists or artworks that deal with Christian themes, I think of pieces like Chris Ofili’s ‘Black Madonna’—pieces that have a much more complicated and often critical perspective on Christianity.

The Black Madonna is a really complicated one. But I think a lot of the opposition to that piece was against the elephant dung present, which Ofili explained is a sort of sacred object in I think several African cultures, so in that regard would not be critical. However, what I always thought was more suspect about that piece were the collaged angels out of pornographic images, so it is definitely very complex. And I hope to be complex too. But I believe that complexity does not have to be a wholesale criticism of faith.

Who or what are some of your major influences?

In addition to the ones I’ve mentioned, I’d also say that with my thesis, which dealt with ideas of apophatic theology, I was very influenced by the work of Bill Viola and his work with the writings of St. John of the Cross. I have also been influenced by philosopher Jean-Luc Marion, and I’ve drawn inspiration from the sparse yet continued lineage of artists who have dealt with spiritual and religious topics and themes to this day—anyone from Van Gogh, Rouault, and Chagall to Stephen de Staebler, Jeni Spota, and Makoto Fujimura.

Liam art--Opus for Apocalyptic Choir

Liam Cawley, Opus for an Apocalyptic Choir



One of the things I find most appealing about your work is its playfulness. ‘Night call to Samuel,’ for example, shows you startled, black coffee in hand, and your thesis, ‘Opus for an Apocalyptic Choir,’ is a triptych with twenty four noisemakers that randomly turn on. What role does humor play in your work?

I think it’s good to have some levity. I’ve never considered myself to really be dealing with humor in the same way that some artists do, as a primary theme. But the theme depicted in ‘Night Call to Samuel’ does reference a scene that I experienced many times in undergrad— staying up until 3am in the morning with a cup of black coffee and seeing things out of the corner of your eye in a state of sleep deprivation.

Liam art--Memento mori

Liam Cawley, Memento Mori


‘Memento Mori,’ on the other hand, a 7.5 ft tall sculpture that viewers can walk inside to be reminded of the fleeting nature of life, has a much more solemn air. What were your intentions with that piece?

I wanted to experiment with ways that the viewer can associate themselves and interact with a three dimensional object that they couldn’t with a panting on a wall. So I think the idea that it would be placed relatively close to the wall so you could go between it and the wall and then sort of be engulfed or inside or forced to interact with it very closely came first, and then I made decisions on materials that I wanted to use, the interior side is covered in tar, which has an interesting texture, absorbs light in a very interesting way, and also has a very strong smell that would be emphasized by the forced proximity of the viewer. And once I had decided on the materials that I wanted to use and the idea of being enclosed in the space, that was when I started to think about themes of funerary embalment. In ancient Egypt they would cover the mummy in tar, and the piece is very coffin-shaped. I was also thinking about what tar is–it’s dead matter from pre-historic times.

What are you planning for your grotto-like installation space in the basement of the Commerce Center?

I would describe it as more catacomb-like—it’s very stony and subterranean but still clearly man-made, and has a number of Roman arches. I hope to convert this space into a sort of twenty-first century Roman catacomb to memorialize the twenty-first century martyrs, of which there are many, although I’m focusing on the Egyptian Copts who were killed by ISIS/ISOL in Syria last February.

Of the resident artists this summer, you’re one of two who grew up in South Bend. How has the growing local art scene shaped your own practice?

It’s made me really happy!  It’s really edifying to see South Bend grow—not only in the art scene, but our music scene has been blossoming as well. Downtown is vibrant in a way it never was when I was a child. It was really great as a developing artist to have this dynamic environment that was between being a post-industrial rust belt town—I think it made it to some lists of the most dying cities in the nation – and being a more cultural location. I’ve heard stories about what South Bend was in the eighties, and I’m really glad to see the town that I grew up in moving towards a new vitality and a new cultural importance.


Photo Credit: Liam Cawley and Leah Gallant

by Leah Gallant

Margaret Halquist is a Milwaukee-based artist who earned her BFA in sculpture at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design in 2015. Her work employs drawing, installation, and video to question the presumed truthfulness of text. Her thesis, “IMPRESSED YET,” involved a 30′ x 40′ banner that read ‘are you so impressed with authority’ displayed backwards on the MIAD design building.


Margaret in her studio at the Birdsell Mansion


How did you start working with text?

Text has this reputation of being the easy way out—of being too literal for certain ideas or ways of thinking. There’s this weird hierarchy in art, where if there’s both abstraction and text, the words are always the real answer even if it’s mixed in with something else. It’s like, “Oh, I’m going to look at this text because it’s going to tell me what’s really happening.” Whereas most people expect language to provide an answer rather than a question, I use text to confuse and complicate the subject.


Who are some of your major influences, both artistically and philosophically?

As I started working with text, people would often associate me with these artists who are much more literal with their texts, but I shied away from that.  I like Sharon Hayes’ work, which employs text in a way that’s much more ambiguous—Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, a lot of people in that era. I also really like Sarah Sze for her abstraction and her ways of working with material. And I’ve always been a big fan of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who is a philosopher, and his discussions of the failure of language and how language isn’t an absolute communication. I consider John Cage a philosopher—I really enjoy a lot of what he does, whether it’s his music or his art.


Although language is a major part in most of your work, you use it to push your art in pretty different directions- for example, collaborative social practice with the Washington Park project, where you employed six homeless men to apply words cut out of carpet tape to sidewalks of the neighborhood. What interests you about using text specifically to raise questions of place and community?

I think text is associated with the everyday—we’re confronted with it as being absolute. We think—this is a fact because it’s written down, or on a sign. We’re constantly being fed information. I get a lot of inspiration from advertisements, or things you see on the street and mindlessly take in, and so I’m interested in obscuring that or redefining certain words or objects. With the Washington Park exercise, where I was able to talk with the people who were helping me, they had their own definitions of the words, associations, but they never isolated the words in that way, and that was interesting to me. They told me that throughout that week the text would change. And so meaning and material and language can all shift. It’s in constant flux, and I’m interested in that.

caution_1000   unity_1000

Magaret Halquist, Washington Park 


What reactions did you get from community members for the banner piece?

I talked to everyone from the industrial design faculty to random people on the street about their reactions. Overall people on the streets were curious more than anything. I was there during the five hours of installation, so I was watching—it was very windy, it was this really epic installation, the whole piece was flying one way. People would stop by and take pictures or make comments, and since I was the only one standing there, they would ask me questions—like, ask if it’s on right because the text was backwards. On Facebook, there were a few posts of people being like “I don’t know who did this but this is really cool” and other people being like “why would the school put this up” – some people thought it was the school – and other people were offended by it.

IMG_6135_1000  impressed-yet-exterior_1000

Magaret Halquist, IMPRESSED YET


How do you go about selecting a text and matching it to a particular space or community?

It depends on the project. With the Washington Park project, that was associated with when I spent time in Washington Park and talked to the people there, community members, people on the streets. I took casual surveys and asked them what they associated with home and Washington Park and what was important to them, and I filtered through and found these words that were most prevalent and used those. For other pieces, I appropriate language—sometimes I’ll just be reading, and there will be a random line that sticks out to me, and I’ll change a couple things about it so it makes sense. That displacement of language – and it’s not necessarily present to anyone else that observes it – is important to me. I read a lot, and I like this idea of translation.


What do you mean by translation? How does that factor into how you make work?

I use the word translation a lot, not because it’s literal translation—my work is in English—but because there’s a shift or a new perception of the way you look at something based off its physical surrounding—what it’s made out of, how big it is, all these factors that go into it can completely change what it means, even though it may say the same thing. There’s a lot that can go into it—even spacing, or a lack of a question mark. For example in “IMPRESSED YET”, there was a very specific decision that went into that. It makes it more of a statement than a question.


Speaking of the absent question mark — I’ve also noticed that text is conspicuously absent in some of your other work, such as “To Scale.” How do you see the absence of clear text in that series communicating about the subject matter?

I use photography in a similar way to text. I like using blown up images, or distorted things, not because I manipulated them, but because you can’t see it, but putting them in these settings where they’re abstracted, they don’t mean anything. That’s what the “To Scale” project is, there would randomly be a section of black pages or text and that would be it. Or maybe there would be a part of a railing or an ‘N’ next to a section of a tree, so there would be interesting moments but it takes a lot of patience to get to them. It’s not instantly gratifying. I want to continue that series in different locations—I’m going to take some photos here. The books are all named after their latitude and longitude, so it’s nice to have it spread out.

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Margaret Halquist, To Scale


For that piece and some others, your work is installed in a gallery space. How are you planning on translating the ideas you’ve been working around into your installation this Summer, in a space that you have more control over (or access to)?

A lot of the gallery work on my website is from last Summer, when I was in New York and had a studio space. At the School of Visual Arts I mostly stayed in my studio space and made work there. But early last year, I started to understand that what was important to me was making this guerrilla art—art in public space that isn’t necessarily easily understandable. I decided that I didn’t want to make precious objects. That is definitely something I want to push while I’m here, ways to work where you can distribute things, or take them apart, or ways to leave something behind, rather than make “art objects.” I’m still figuring it out, balancing my values and place and very challenging space I have to work with.

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Magaret’s Installation space in the Commerce Center


Is there a favorite piece you’ve worked on?

I think I’m able to communicate my carpet tape pieces conceptually, even just by explaining it to people. Non-artists are able to grasp what I’m saying, and that’s really gratifying. I plan to continue with the series, and because it’s a place piece—it changes depending on where I’m installing it—I think it will always be interesting to me.


Margaret Halquist, tape


For more of Margaret’s work, go to www.margarethalquist.com.


Photo Credits: Leah Gallant, Margaret Halquist, Andrew Strong