This interview was conducted by Catherine Carija in March 2021
On your website you express an interest in “growth, damage, struggle, and beauty” as you perceive it in the natural world. You state an intention to use your art as an expression of your inner narrative relative to those interests. Can you recall what inspired you to pursue that direction as the foundation for your artistic studies, in the first place?
I grew up in the country and spent more time outside in nature than I spent with people. It suited me and natural cycles shaped my imagination early on. I’m not sure we really choose what direction our art will go in…I think it chooses us. My job is to try to quiet the outer voices so I can hear the inner one.
You state that your paintings influence your printmaking and the prints influence your paintings. It appears you were a painter first, and then you studied printmaking. Why did you pursue printmaking and when was that?
I first tried printmaking when I was studying at an art school in London on a scholarship after college. I thought the print studio was fussy and boring and had no interest in pursuing it! It’s a good thing I didn’t stick with it…it was so toxic and there was no discussion of protecting yourself. Masks and gloves didn’t exist in that space. I gave printmaking a second chance after graduate school when my interest in painting had been snuffed out for a while. Alice Spencer, a wonderful Portland artist and founding member of Peregrine Press, taught a workshop in monotype. I was hooked. It was playful, experimental, low tech and definitely not fussy. She inspired me to join Peregrine Press and to take more workshops through Maine College of Art. I learned non-toxic intaglio there, woodcut, and screen printing.
When did you come to Zea Mays and what prompted you to make the trip? How long did you stay here? Did you stay on site or elsewhere? Did you come just once or multiple times?
One of our Peregrine Press members, Deedee Schwartz, kept talking about Zea Mays Studio in such glowing terms. I was curious. I had just started a small printmaking program at a local community college and wanted to improve my etching skills. I signed up for a weekend workshop with Anita Hunt on coffee lift etching in 2012 and stayed in my first air bnb in Florence when I came. I was so excited by being there that I could barely sleep! I came back for a week-long workshop in non-toxic etching, then did the summer certificate program in Green Printmaking in 2016. On that visit, we rented Tekla McInerney’s beautiful home for the month. During this period I was teaching printmaking as a visiting professor at Bowdoin College and was able to invite Liz Chalfin to be our guest artist in the fall. I brought Nancy Diessner in to teach photopolymer etching to my classes in the spring. Photopolymer intaglio, and Nancy’s way of doing it, captivated me, and led to my applying for the residency. Zea Mays has the set up for this process, and an amazing support system for learning and making work. I also got to stay in the apartment above the studio, which was perfect. I was there by myself for a week then shared it with Larinda Meade. We had some great conversations!
Did you have specific goals for your time at Zea Mays? What were you working on when you were here?
Instead of having a big party, I decided to celebrate my 60th birthday by doing the residency. It was perfect! I had an idea, and I received a grant from the Maine Arts Commission to work on it along with support from Zea Mays. I bought a lot of Toyobo plates and started researching the process. I wanted to put my chance ink stains and my precise realist drawings together in prints. The last time I’d done photopolymer etching, Nancy Diessner had produced the plates for us. I hoped to figure out the process and see if I could make the plates myself. There was a lot of trial and error (a lot of mess ups!), but eventually I got some plates that were workable. I did mostly proofs while I was at the residency and went home with a big set of blot pates and another set of plates made from my drawings.
Did your work shift in any way as a result of being here? Did you shift personally in any way, as a result of your visit? Did anything take you by surprise or engage you in an unfamiliar and/or unexpected way?
When I don’t work for a long period of time, I always wonder if I will ever really work seriously again. What surprised me during my residency, with no distractions, was how quickly I fell back into the disciplined work routine and how productive I was. I also really thrive in a learning environment that actively and generously supports artists. Zea Mays aces that. There is a sense of nurturing that is woven into the ethic of the studio. I feel so encouraged by it and my work is more confident as a result.
Did your residency impact the way you teach or change your approach to creating art?
The residency gave me solid work time in the studio and helped me to reconnect with my process. I had been teaching so many classes to stay afloat financially (4 course in 3 institutions at one point!) and I felt really drained. I don’t work in my studio when I am teaching that much. So, having 2 weeks to myself, with few responsibilities and a lot of time alone was such a gift. I could hear myself think. I store up ideas like a squirrel burying nuts. It was great to dig them up and see them take form. When I returned to teaching (the day after I got back from the residency!), I was relaxed and present. I could teach from that place of being a working artist again.
Your work, especially your paintings, is “intensely focused and detailed.” Does printmaking allow you to do what you are unable to do by painting? Additionally, what does the combined use of painting and printmaking give you that, either one alone does not?
Printmaking allows me to play. I get too serious and too precious sometimes with painting. The randomness of what happens when a plate goes through the press offers new possibilities. And I love it that you can make multiples…if you don’t like your first try, the plate is just waiting to be inked again. It’s such a forgiving process. Mistakes become backgrounds for future ideas. Printmaking opens up the creative process for me, and I come back to painting with a more elastic perspective, more aware of potentials.
You state that you want “to form visual associations that describe artist’s place in the world, and her emotional response to it.” How do you see your place in the world and what is your emotional response to the world? Is there a response you feel that alludes your ability to convey it artistically?
It’s been interesting and at times unnerving to feel the art world change focus around me. Social practice art, art committed to activism, is so prominent now. Although I’m deeply interested in politics and contemporary issues, those things are never overt in my work. I take the objects of daily life: pins, thread, rubber bands, flowers, insects… and put them together in ways that create emotional situations. When I have a show, I love it when people are moved by the work. They can’t always explain why, and everyone may have a different take on what they are seeing, but their feelings are activated. For me it’s more profound than rational thought, a deeper mystery. I can’t really put it into words, and that’s the point.
When I was at Zea Mays a few years ago I went to visit Emily Dickinson’s home in Amherst. The ordinariness of it was what struck me most. In that simple setting, huge ideas could unfold.
How has your creative practice changed as a result of Covid pandemic? How do you feel about those changes? Will you maintain those changes and incorporate them after the pandemic? Why or why not?
It hasn’t been a great time for me creatively. I had a burst of activity last June, after I finished my spring semester teaching and before I had to start getting ready for the fall. I was able to print at the community college using my plates from the residency. I made a huge quilt that I’d been thinking about all spring. It’s printed on old silk my grandfather brought back from China in the 1940’s. The fabric is so beautiful, and the prints are amazingly detailed on it. I call it my Covid Comforter. I haven’t worked on fabric before, and this is the first time I’ve made something that moves off the wall. I want it to be shown on a bed. We all needed comfort during this pandemic, but the comfort my quilt offers is mixed and difficult. It’s like all those hugs we make in the air because we can’t touch each other now.
After I finished that, I had to launch into learning to teach online using Zoom and Blackboard. I started a 3-year position at Bowdoin in September, and there was so much new technology to get used to. It required all my energy and focus. At the same time, I took on the job of caring for my elderly mother at our home after the senior living place she was in had an outbreak. I am glad I did it. She’s been safe with us and not lonely, but it’s been a lot.
Going forward, I want to continue to emphasize printmaking and make it more central to my work. The photopolymer process allows me to mix the precision I love in my drawings, with the experimental layering that generates new ideas for me. I used to be a huge fan of xerox lithography…now the Toyobo plates have all my attention.
What are you looking forward to most as you pursue your art practice going forward?
I hope I have more time, and a lightening of responsibilities. I’ve worked all my life as an artist and also as a teacher. My art time has been fragmented. I want to be one of those older women who finally pulls all the threads together and makes significant work. I don’t feel like I’m done yet!
Is there anything else you would like to share?
I’m looking down the road a bit and thinking about starting my own small press here in Portland in a few years. It would be a place to do my work and have a small group of printmakers I could teach and offer space to. Some of the students I’ve had at the Community College have expressed an interest in being part of it. I like the idea of creating my own community. Both Zea Mays and Peregrine Press have been models for me in this.