By Leah Gallant
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.
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.
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.
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.
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