Interview - Nirmal Raja

"Lyrical Lines" Engraved palm leaves, intaglio and collograph print- 14” X 32”

Our next exhibition is The Tongue of the Hand, new work by Nirmal Raja. Raja answered some questions on the work she'll be showing. 


Can you start out by telling us a little about yourself and your artistic background?

I grew up moving every few years across India and then briefly to S. Korea and Hong Kong. I migrated to this country in 1991 after marrying my husband Sharath. I have a Bachelors degree in English Literature from India. I continued my education and obtained a BFA at the Milwaukee institute of Art and Design, and a MFA in painting at UWM. My friends and family, the exceptional faculty at UWM’s Peck School of the Arts where I continue to teach and an amazing support system at Redline Milwaukee (where I am a mentor resident), have all had a hand in my growth as an artist. Due to migration and travel, my life has been a collage of experiences. As a result, my artwork is a collage as well- of experiences ruminated, digested and translated. Nurturing a poetic sensibility towards life helps me reconcile diverse memories of a fragmented past with the here and now; this attitude permeates my work.


In this exhibition, you are exploring the different aspects of language such as “script as form” and “legibility and illegibility.” Can you talk a little about the evolution of these concerns in your work?

I am fascinated by the opacity of an illegible script. I have lived and travelled in many places and absorbed what it feels like to be confronted with a script I cannot read. It becomes line and pattern (form) and one cannot help but see rather than read. It is wonderful to focus on abstract notions of geometry, mark making, rhythm and how these things can communicate in their own way especially when written by hand. The expressive quality of line is universal and communicates something subliminal and guttural nevertheless.

I am also interested in the duality of these scripts as they parallel the duality of two cultures and perspectives. The same script decoded by a native speaker is perfectly understandable to her or him but totally illegible to someone who does not know the language. English plays a hegemonic role in written and verbal communication- probably remnants of a colonial past. We are increasingly becoming a monolingual society with very little tolerance of diversity of language. In the work “The Practice of Letters”, I place the viewer in a position where she or he experiences what it feels like to be confronted with script they cannot decode. Too often, non-English speaking people are put in this position. I chose to incorporate a ritual from childhood, which involves writing letters on a bed of rice. In this artwork, the viewer is invited to participate in this ritual by tracing the animated letters on a bed of rice which is a very sensual and tactile experience.

I am often saddened by the loss of my own native tongue due to attending all English speaking schools and migration. At the same time, I want to transcend the limitations of language through my artwork. In this show I focus on the possibilities of using line as a mode of expression, the substrate as manuscript and printmaking as mimesis and mirror.

"Community" Engraved palm leaves, intaglio and collograph print- 14” X 32”You employ both traditional and new media practices in your work such as drawing and video. How does the blending of these types of practices help you to express the concepts you are interested in?

I try to keep my practice as open as possible to different media choices. My approach to making art has always given preference to the idea over materials. Although trained as a painter, I love to learn new techniques and modes of making. I have found that drawing animation particularly is suitable for what I want to express. I like the way it hovers between materiality and immateriality and allows temporality and participation. Combined with installation strategies, art becomes an immersive experience.

The Scribed series is very much about materiality and process. I started each of these works with an intentional mark and allowed for free “writing” Some are about gesture and line, some resemble asemic writing (a wordless and non specific form of writing) and some become pattern. My intent is to remove coding and semantics and create a space where the viewers can fill it with meaning. I chose to use an ancient book form – palm leaf scroll as a substrate and then connect that with the Western tradition of printmaking and its role in the proliferation of knowledge. The scroll and the print mirrored, speak for cultural and formal duality within the work.

How does the work in The Tongue of the Hand differ from your previous work? How is it the same? Specifically, how did your consideration of our 12 X 12 space influence your work?

Text and line have always had a presence in my work usually to enhance an over all concept. I consider the work included in this show as beginnings of an ongoing exploration. There are several other aspects of text and language that I will continue to explore in the future. The advantage of a 12 X12 space is that it gives one control over the whole space and at the same time forces you to edit your work and thoughts. I chose not to include some work that was going in a different direction due to space and concerns of clarity and I believe this makes for a stronger show.

The text that is included in this installation is an excerpt from the Ain-I Akbari, “On the Arts of Writing and Painting” (ca. 1590) by Abul Fazi. Please tell us a little about this writer and the significance of this text.

Abul Fazl was the minister and advisor to Emperor Akbar in late 1500s India. He was one of the nine “jewels” in Akbar’s court, a prolific writer, historian and translator. He supported Emperor Akbar’s liberal views on religion and learning. I found this quote by him in an exhibition catalog about manuscripts and the written word- The word is sacred, sacred is the word, The Indian Manuscript Tradition. I was struck by how fresh and relevant his ideas still are with text based contemporary art and my concerns of language, art and communication.

"Sunset Perspective" Engraved palm leaves, intaglio and collograph print- 14” X 32”Do you have any other shows coming up that you would like to talk about?

I was invited to exhibit at the Alfons Gallery in Milwaukee in August 2015. This is particularly exciting to me as I am interested in exploring the spiritual in this show. I will be showing some video installations and other work that connect ideas of mindfulness, nature and transience. In addition, I am part of a group show in San Ramon, CA titled Intersections: Asian American Narratives in February 2015; I have a two-person show at the Hinterland Gallery in Denver in the fall of 2015, and a group show at the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum in Oct 2015. I am grateful and excited for all opportunities to share my work.



We'll be having a very special exhibition this Friday September 19th. The show addresses environmental concerns and how they may relate to human disease. C. Matthew Luther answered some questions on his approach to this topic. 


This exhibit deals with your struggle with Crohn’s and how the disease may relate to environmental toxins. When did you become interested in these correlations and when did you start integrating them into your studio practice?

"Exclusion Zone"It is a bit hard to describe, and it is kind of like the “Perfect Storm”. Several years ago I did a body of paintings that tried to mimic dreams and hallucinations I had while in a medically induced coma and near death, but that was more specific to an event. Jokingly I generally live with a certain amount of denial of having Crohn’s, but since I was diagnosed 9 years ago there has been an underlying current of my health condition in my artwork. A little over a year ago I began investigating Superfund Sites across Wisconsin because I found that there was one not far form where I lived. I wanted to know what had happened, why, and what toxins existed there. I began documenting more and more Sites because I believe people need to know about their history, where they are located, and if they continue to remain a health risk.

It was about 6 months into the project that I came across a recent research article from Environmental Health Perspectives in which researchers had found significant changes in the DNA structure of mice when PCB toxins were introduced. Several of the Sites I have been documenting have heavy PCB contamination. I had no intention of bringing my disease into the project until I read this article. It solidified all of these ideas I had about being a walking metaphor for how American culture treats the landscape and so on. The article pointed out the links to Crohn’s Disease and the similarities to genetic mutations in the human intestinal biome. I was still unsure if I should introduce my condition as part of the project for several reasons, but the link had been created between what I was working on artistically and what I live with internally. I felt that maybe I can not only create a dialogue about environmental conservation, but also talk about a disease that is often hard for myself and others to describe how they suffer or how the disease affects them. I always think about a couple of students I have had that had either Crohn’s or Colitis. I remember look of fear in their eyes before they tried to explain why they might miss class and why, and then the lift of this giant weight from their shoulders as I told them I could relate, but I also remember their horror stories of trying to explain to other faculty and some of the insensitivity.

Part of your practice involves documenting the EPA “Superfund” Sites. What are these sites and what is it like walking onto one and witnessing it firsthand? How have you been received by government authorities who you encounter in producing your work?

The Environmental Protection Agency of the United States defines a Superfund site as an uncontrolled or abandoned place where hazardous waste is located and possibly affecting the local ecosystem or people. These areas are further recorded as Remedial sites (long term clean up), Removal sites (short term hazardous material removal), and listed on the National Proprieties List for immediacy and time of action due to the amount of pollution. The money to clean up these location falls on the responsible party or property owner, but often these properties are abandoned or fall into ownership limbo and money is then allocated from Congress or what is know as the Superfund. Originally Superfund was the title for a trust of taxes billed to petroleum and chemical industries. The tax was dissolved in 1995, at which point the fund was 6 billion dollars.

By 2003 the original trust was exhausted and though there is resistance from the chemical and petroleum industry, there are efforts to reinstate the tax.

All of these sites are different and some worse than others. Some older, some new, and some have current clean up activity. Each site comes with set amount of hazards being on the property or near them due to the toxicity or condition of structures on the property. In general there are few locations that I have enter buildings on the property and most often I am just walking around the property experiencing it from the perimeter. Part of the project is experiencing everything from the outside and the mystery of what occurs inside. Kathy Halbur an On-Site Coordinator for Region 5, E.P.A. Superfund Sites has been an invaluable resource and a pleasure to work with. She has meet with me numerous times and helped guide and direct my project in many ways. Other government and state employees have been a little cold or non-responsive at times and there is a feeling that a wall goes up once you mention the word art.

In your work, you employ various production techniques such as pattern and the manipulation of layers, as well as digital and analogue processes. How do these processes relate conceptually to a feeling of presence and memory?

Overall it is a contemporary dialogue of culture I am addressing in regard to the evolution of digital technology and how it affects us physically and psychologically. This is a never-ending condition. What is new turns old. This is not a new theory, but what interests me is how it affects the human connection to nature, and to the landscape. Not all that long ago the Hudson Valley Painters presented a romantic view of the Catskill Mountains as many great painters presented an idealized view of the landscape that surrounded them. Now the romantic view presents itself through Instagram and other modes of the electronic globalization of images.

This presentation of images affects our vision of life that exists beyond our immediate experience. In my process of photography I use both film and digital for there unique values, one is antiquated, but as a medium will continue to be superior in quality and resolution. The other represents a superior element of storage, ease, and quick editing or manipulation. The elements of print I introduce are generally of a wallpaper pattern, an older traditional value of decoration. It is a pattern to represent home and comfort within an interior space. That pattern and structure of comfort exists along as it supports new forms of digital prints on canvas to adorn the home. All of these forms of process and production speak to elements of how and what we define as the present it in light of the digital experience of ideology and how we experience the past through an analogue vision of comfort, home, and landscape.

"Buffum MDC"How does presence and memory relate back to environmental issues through your specific experience of someone affected by an autoimmune disease?

…I remember one of my first rebellious environmental actions was pulling up survey stakes and remarking trees when I was a punk ass kid full of idealism. I wanted nothing more than that suburban plot of woods to remain as it was a thin 4 acre walk through of hardwood, and to grow it to something more, developers wanted something else…

I am not sure how to approach this question. But here’s my best shot; before I was diagnosed with Crohn’s, I was an artist, and before Crohn’s, I was an environmental activist. I went through the door of a tragic event and came out diagnosed with Crohn’s and everything changed, my understand of everything changed. Literally my memory was working on altered for a time. When I look out on the landscape I can see the scares of past events like my scares and I am aware of what is occurring presently and not much changes. An entire economy sprouts up before, during, and after a Superfund Site is created. Before it is defined as a Superfund Site it’s a proposed economic strength, it’s a private industry, and it’s a Gogebic Taconite Mine in the Penokees Hills.

Visiting the Little Menomonee River and the Moss-American Site is a bit eerie. I am familiar with this area from what I have read and about a river so badly polluted that volunteers cleaning up the riverbanks received chemical burns on their legs in 1971 from industrial run off. It is a Site not far from traffic and industry, but the area is now lush with vegetation and rich with amphibian and aquatic life. I recently shot underwater video footage of crayfish, as they would surround my feet as I waded in the water. Now that area is rebuilding itself, relearning how to be nature.

You do not shy away from the more “personal” aspects of what it’s like to live with Crohn’s Disease. In fact, the exhibit contains some darkly humorous elements. Can you explain why you choose to approach these subjects in this manner?

There a story my mother told me about a time in the hospital when the doctors would pull me out the drug induced paralytic to see how I would respond. I would try real hard to communicate, but I couldn’t speak so I would try to draw. The nurse or someone in the room asked me what the international sign for the bird was, and I would lift my finger and everyone laughed. I have no memory of this at all, but the story always makes me smile, and happy that in such a difficult time my parents were able to laugh as well. This illness is something I have to live with and If couldn’t laugh at it or myself, I would be letting the disease win. Humor is hard and a challenge for me to place in art. I love to make jokes and Robin and I are always making each other crack up, but in art it’s a different story.

In general I am tying to lighten the atmosphere and poke fun at myself a little bit, while making connections in the work with the metaphors of digestion, shit and pollution. Telling jokes about shit is difficult and fairly uncomfortable, and the outcome is both funny and awkward, but it is meant to be. It is difficult to describe Crohn’s to people beyond what is portrayed through bad Pharmaceutical commercials or what’s on the Internet. It’s not like talking about the weather when describing how the inflammation that causes chronic diarrhea also causes painful arthritis, or the medication and surgeries. So this is an attempt to create that dialogue with humor, but not forgetting that environmental decay and cultural perspectives on nature art at the core of all of this conversation.

Luther filming in Menomonee River


Interview - Cassie Marie Edwards

Summer Gallery Night in Milwaukee is coming up on July 25th. Our next featured artist, Cassie Marie Edwards, answered a couple questions about her upcoming show.  


"Shadow Horse" oil on canvas, 12x12", 2013Your current work explores the boundaries between landscape, portraiture and still life. Tell us a little about the evolution of this body of work and how you became interested in these intersections.

These genres seem to hang in the air above all representational paintings. I’m interested in quietly breaking down the ability to quickly categorize and pass over artwork. I hope it slows people down a bit when looking at my work and helps them to question how these categorizations affect our viewing of paintings in general.

I became interested in exploring these boundaries in my work in part as a natural progression away from traditional painting, and in part due to researching art history for my day job as an adjunct art/art history instructor. In my experience, teaching has pushed me to re-evaluate Art History in much more depth than learning about Art History as a student. I find the transitions between art historical movements so much more interesting than the gaps of time in-between where people are following the already successful modes of working.

I also often think about my work as a reaction to representational and hyper-realistic painting. I want to see what I can get away with under the context of ‘representational’ painting while not really playing by the rules. I see many of my paintings as more abstract than representational, playing just outside the lines.

Can you tell us a little about your background and how that influences your studio practice?

I was born and raised in Wisconsin, and developed a love for art from a young age. As a kid, I spent a lot of time with my Grandpa Bob who is a self-taught artist. He would spend hours sitting with me patiently and teaching me how to draw flowers with pen and ink. It stuck, and since then you’ll rarely find me without drawing or painting materials stashed in my bag.

We moved around a lot as I was growing up, and naturally art became my solace of sorts. It was a tool that I used to overcome my shyness and meet new people. It was also therapeutic at times when it was tough to make friends. I’d decided I wanted to go to school for art at a young age, and never strayed from that path.

I earned my undergrad degree at UW-Oshkosh and worked with a wonderful group of faculty and peers. I was constantly pushed to work harder, to make better work, to put in the hours by my insanely dedicated instructors. I went on for my MFA at Northern Illinois University, and continued to be pushed to create while diversifying my studio practice. I am deeply indebted to the wonderful faculty whom I’ve had the privilege to work under.

Immediately after earning my MFA my husband and I moved to rural South Dakota to teach at Dakota State University where he and I have been working for the past 5 years. The quietness and lack of distractions in our small community have given me the opportunity to focus and really ‘find’ my artistic voice. I’ve also found a great community of artists and makers out here in South Dakota. It is a unique place – people here are willing to put their neck on the line and aren’t afraid to live life their way. It was definitely something that surprised me about moving out here and it has encouraged me to be a bit more daring in what I do as an artist.

"Cloud and Mountain" oil on canvas, 11x14"Do you have a specific routine in the studio?

I put in 20-30 hours a week in the studio in addition to my adjunct teaching responsibilities. I schedule my studio hours each week and stick to them. I have an ongoing list of things I need to get done, and I try to tackle the largest projects first. I sit in my studio and make myself work even if I screw up a project or if I’m feeling off kilter. I’ve had some of my best breakthroughs while lying on my floor in complete painting-induced-anxiety.

In regards to my studio work, I usually have about 10 things in progress at once. I am a maniacal planner. I sketch out multiple concepts for a piece, I build a model out of various materials and light it many different ways to see how it will look, and then do a few preliminary sketches to get the composition right.

After this I decide the size of canvas I’ll be working on and build it – from routing the wood, to stretching and priming the canvas. Then I draw out my compositions from life and start my under-painting. I usually add at least two layers of paint on top of this to get the colors flat, smooth and opaque. In order to keep color mixtures consistent, I have a journal where I log all of my mixtures and paints used for each painting. As you can imagine it is a little bit time consuming.

Does your process relate in any way to your conceptual concerns, and if so how?

Yes – it is in many ways a meditative process; I have a lot of time while making work to think about the conceptual implications of what I’m doing. While putting together the models for the paintings, I think a lot about how we communicate visually. I think of this series of work as ‘faux landscapes’ – similar to what you see in a natural history museum when they paint and decorate the backdrop to an animatronic dinosaur. I also think a lot about how far removed we are getting from nature in general – from looking at agribusiness, to the idea of the perfect manicured lawn. I try to reflect this by adding various layers between the viewer and the subject: Viewer, painting, model, landscape(subject).

In addition to creating work, I also photograph, edit, and share my work via social media. I think doing this adds another layer of removal from the objects my paintings represent. It also gives me the opportunity to share my work in-progress and gives people insight into my thought processes and decisions.

When I’m documenting my processes, I often think about this time-lapse of Picasso’s painting process: Watching this in undergrad was one of those pivotal moments as a student where I felt like I had seen how someone’s mind worked. When I begin to build a model, I start with a large amount of materials, and slowly arrange and rearrange them and swap things in and out until I am happy with a composition. Even when I begin painting, I often rearrange things or edit things in/out of the image. I want to share that process and experience with others because I think it enriches the way viewers understand and experience paintings.

"Rainy Days" oil on canvas, 24x36"Who are some of your personal painting heroes and how do they make their presence known in your work?

Wayne Thiebaud: He paints objects with such a reverence for color, composition, and observation. He’s also a lifelong educator, which I find really inspiring especially with the struggles I sometimes face when balancing teaching as an adjunct, studio work, and paying bills.


Georgia Okeefe: Her still life paintings and plein air paintings are a huge source of inspiration for my work. She can use very few elements to create hugely impactful compositions. She also wasn’t afraid to have a really dynamic (in terms of subject matter) group of paintings. She transformed the objects and places she painted

into so much more than the sum of their parts. I also admire the depth, breadth,and success of her work as a painter in a male-dominated market. Her voracious appetite for making and creating is something I strive to emulate.

Josef Albers: I’ve been thinking a lot about Albers’ ‘Interaction of Color’ in the context of my work a lot lately. Being as he was an educator in the Bauhaus and then later at Yale, I think his thoughts and theories have filtered down through the Post Modernists and Contemporary art. I use many of his exercises in the courses I currently teach, and his work is always in the back of my head. For him, painting was truly a practice – a breaking down of paint into its simplest form – pure color. He was an instructor at Yale when one of my painting professors, Ron Weaver, had been a student there. I feel like a part of a lineage of his school of thought, hopefully I’m honoring it in some way.

Morandi: I admire Morandi’s focus, and his ability to create such strong feelings through such subtle changes. This is something I didn’t really understand until I really started to give his work more of my attention. He has the ability to make me laugh or depress me by simple compositional paintings. He isn’t about shock value or pulling in every viewer, his work is quiet and unassuming – and the viewers who take the time to explore his work reap the benefits.


Interview - Daniel Fleming

Daniel Fleming is a Milwaukee artist who has been exploring issues of spying and privacy in contemporary society. In this interview Daniel talks about this newest body of work and his upcoming solo show at Greymatter. 

"Honk" (Detail), Ink on paper, 12x18"

First, tell us a little about your background and how that influences you as an artist.

When I was growing up I was mostly exposed to art through my mom and dad, despite the fact that neither of them worked in the creative field. I attended schools which, largely, did not have an art program but, luckily, was brought to art galleries and fairs, shown documentaries, even spent weeknights drawing with my dad on the kitchen table...and though I really don't think I was ever pushed in any way toward a career in art, I've always been interested in something art-related. When I hit highschool, I took my "doodling" to the next level and, with encouragement from my parents, i continued exploring the world of paint, until I basically spent all my non-homework and non-sporting hours in the basement working on art. I have always drawn...but i didn't think about fine art as a career until I began spending nearly all my free-time working on it and, at that point, it was hard to think about anything else…

I can't say that this is a path that any other artist should plan, but I also don't know where I'd be had anything gone differently. The lack of structure taught me to experiment…the lack of a teacher made me self-critical…the lack of purpose taught me to relax and have fun…the lack of art being given to me forced me to search it out and that motivation is truly what carries me through my work today.

Your current body of work deals with the notion of privacy in contemporary life and how technology and politics factors into this. How did you become interested in this phenomenon?

"Going Somewhere" Ink on paper, 12x18"Privacy, or a lack-there-of, has been a hot issue in the last year and people across the country have very strong and very differing opinions on surveillance, it's need in society and it's effect on our lives…but I think the thing most people in the conversation are missing is that, no matter what side we are on, we are, in some way, taking part in the watching, the being watched and the distribution of that information. As we complain that the government is reading our emails, we click headlines that spread paparazzi shots of our favorite celebs trying to get away. While we cry that the NSA is taking our privacy, we sit behind closed blinds and secretly watch the argument develop in the apartment across the street. We fear that our lives are becoming too known at the same time that we constantly update our status, post the current song on spotify and freely spread our opinion across random website comment threads. I don't believe that I am as much interested in that actual issue of surveillance as much as I am interested in the ignorance of one's own participation in the constant circle of watching and being watched. For a society that seems to value privacy and freedom, it's fascinating to watch how we constantly infringe upon it when it comes to people, places and groups that don't include "I".

It seems like you typically use a very colorful palette, whereas in this work your palette is more subdued. Describe how this factors into the concepts you are exploring in "Peer."

The drawings in PEER arose from a multi-week hiatus from painting. I had just created and installed my largest ever piece, AERIALS, at Galerie M and, while I still felt the drive to create, the energy was a bit lacking. I was burnt out. AERIALS was one of the busiest and most energetic pieces I had ever done and the process of creating it mirrored that. I had figure out a way to get my mind on the next thing…even if that next thing hadn't yet been completely thought out. I took a step back from the large-scale paintings, left the brushes in the studio, sunk into a comfy chair and started drawing.

The initial reason for the black & white of the drawings was a simple rejection of the previous project. AERIALS was an experiment in excess of size and color and the drawings of PEER simply started as a way to move on. Early in the process, I realized much of my imagery lent itself to a black and white presentation and a few drawings into the collection, I began to see the promise and potential in the images paired with an emerging understanding of the surveillance discussion. The "black/white" of the images mirror the one-sided "right v. wrong" views of the conversation being had while the simplicity of the objects and graphics create an immediate familiarity and comfort with the viewer. These draw the viewer into the scene…and only then can we move the discussion forward into more complex thoughts and concepts.

You have spoken about the role of the viewer in this installation. Can you elaborate on this a little?

The artwork is essential to the show, but from a conceptual standpoint, the viewer is nearly as important. PEER takes it's name from the double entendre of "to view" or "an equal acquaintance" and the juxtaposition between the two definitions. If you are peering into someone's background, chances are you don't consider them a "peer"…likewise, if someone is spying on you or overseeing your actions, the chances of them seeing you as equal seems rather low….yet everyone, in some way, fills both roles.

"Spy Planes" (detail) Ink on Paper, 12x18"This show uses the viewer to investigate these relationships and create an understanding of our ability to constantly shift between peer and viewer, depending on the perspective. When you first enter the show, the small-scale of the drawings will give power to the viewer. They will stand over the work, view the entire scene and investigate it to their heart's content. The large-scale piece knocks the viewer down a few pegs. Here, you need to strain to get close to the highest points of the canvas, you'll need to shift your body as you try to move across the entire surface, and you give up some of that control as others move into your view, attempt to investigate the same image and jostle to find a place to stand. As you take yet another step back, you gain another perspective as the gallery itself becomes a distant landscape. The viewers, some dominating the smaller work, some enveloped by the larger canvas, all become peers in this view of the project as they shuffle around the small space.

In short, the viewer dominates, is dominated, and then is shown how it's all relative to where you stand. We are all part of a small distant landscape to someone…it all depends where the viewer is standing.

Tell us a little about any other projects or activities you are involved in right now.

I have a number of projects currently in the works including a one-night show at the A.C.E. Carriage House Gallery June 6th, for Bay View Gallery Night, I will be participating in the 5th Anniversary show of Indiana Green with Frank Juarez Gallery in Cedarburg and am in the process of creating a solo show of furniture work at the 88Nine Radio Milwaukee Headquarters. Also, I am creating a piece for the upcoming CultureJamMKE for July Gallery Night and hope to be completing my first outdoor mural in the area this year.

In the last year I have taken part in five solo shows, including AERIALS at the Intercontinental Hotel and a number of group shows including Branding Creativity from Plaid Tuba and Hanson Dodge. I was a finalist in the Tournavation project from Newaukee for my FACEbox concept and even had my first ever solo on the east coast, Loose Canvas, hosted by the Rochester Museum of Fine Art. I have sold work both nationally and internationally this past year and hope to increase the reach of my art through shows like PEER and further involvement in the local and outside art communities.


Interview - Shannon Sullivan

The 48th annual NCECA conference is in Milwaukee this year. In conjunction with the event we'll be showing new work by Shannon Sullivan. A Wisconsin native, she now lives and works in California. Sullivan combines traditional ceramics practices with more contemporary ones such as installation. 

"Dangling Blue Pits" 10x30x3" ceramic and acrylic

In your work you often combine ceramics with other elements such as acrylic. How did you become interested in mixing these specific mediums together?

My breakthrough as an artist came when I learned to work with metal. My sculptures that referenced invented laboratory tools became possible to build in a more sophisticated manner with the strength and of durability ceramic parts married with metal elements.

From this point my studio practice became a material investigation. How could I marry clay with other media such as metal, glass, polymer, wire and acrylic to pose questions about material use? How could I convey my ideas more clearly? I wanted to literally reference a microscope slide in the work, so I started incorporating various transparent materials, first plexiglas, then Envirotex tinted with ceramic pigments. On and off since 2005 I’ve been experimenting with, inventing, and perfecting the craftsmanship, compositions, and integrity of the floating ceramic and acrylic panels.

What type of conceptual concerns do you address in your work?

My work explores natural phenomenon from the vast to the microscopic on various scales and in numerous species. This endless source material rooted in the prevailing ways of the natural world allows me to combine source material such as fingerprint patterns and ocean currents, cellular forms and vegetal dissections into objects, installations and floating wall panels that are familiar, but maintain a sense of seductive mystery. My work is about cultivating reverence for the quiet, nuanced beauty that surrounds me. I’m interested in calling attention to the connectedness of seemingly disparate parts of the natural world.

Recently I’ve been particularly inspired by the writings of D’arcy Wentworth Thompson and Peter Pearce, two scientists whose research on growth and structure in the natural world has influenced the Minimum Inventory, Maximum Diversity series that I began this past summer during a residency at the Pottery Workshop in Jingdezhen, China.

"Sprout Cluster", ceramic, hand cut vinyl, dimensions variableYou also have an interest in using ceramics in an installation-based context. Can you talk a little about how this relates to your other work and how it is different?

For me the object-oriented pieces like the Minimum Inventory, Maximum Diversity series or the Floating Wall Panels series feed the installations and vise versa. For example, I was given an opportunity to make a piece for a 90” gallery wall at Brookhaven College in Dallas, Texas. Many of the ceramic and acrylic pieces during that time contained elements that I referred to as “sour wheels” or “citrus orifices”. These ceramic configurations combined imagery reminiscent of a lamprey eel’s mouth and dissected citrus fruit. For the installation in Dallas, I removed any suggestion of an acrylic support from the piece, freely placing the components of the piece entitled Sprout Cluster strategically on the gallery wall to create a dynamic overall composition comprised of delightful smaller groupings that the viewer could inspect from a close distance. I incorporated hand cut vinyl shapes in this installation to ground the small ceramic objects and suggest bull kelp, a plant I love to dissect and examine when exploring the beaches in Humboldt County where I live. The next ceramic and acrylic wall pieces such as Dangling Blue Pits utilized the same reference to Bull Kelp, but the linear elements are made up of small cellular forms being buoyantly tugged by mushroom peach hybrids.

I love the intimate, craft-centric, and emotive possibilities of working small. I am interested in people living with my work, and sometimes objects are more accessible than large installations, however my practice has been invigorated by opportunities to create large site-specific pieces. I see myself continuing to grow and learn by working both ways.

"Nature Excels at this Game #10" 12x12x10", ceramicHow has your personal history influenced the type of work you do and the larger conceptual issues behind it.

On November 12, 1999 as a sophomore in college I was injured in a car accident. I broke several ribs, suffered lacerations on my face and neck, had collapsed a lung, and a broken, displaced pelvis. After multiple procedures, surgeries, and plenty of morphine, I was released from the hospital to recover.

During my recovery, I fixated on what was going on inside my body. I thought of myself as bionic. Imagery produced through tools such as microscopes and x-ray technology became interesting to me. X-rays of my bionic pelvis allowed me to see the stark contrast between the bone, tissue and surgical hardware that was holding me together. I imagined the smallest component of my being; individual cells, being profoundly affected by my physical predicament. After returning to the studio, large slabs of clay became canvases for interpretations of microscopic imagery, a language I then realized I was familiar with before my accident. When I was young my sister and I were given supervised access to microscopes at my mother’s workplace, a medical lab in Madison. I remember watching her count cells, use a centrifuge, and organize specimens in special racks as I quietly pondered the vast viewfinder full of nuanced orbs, linear formations, and floating diagnoses. The language of cellular organization and ideas regarding multiples, accumulation, growth, repair and decay has become my core visual vocabulary.

Late night slip-casting session at the Pottery Workshop in Jingdezhen ChinaWhat types of issues do contemporary artists who work in ceramics face? How do you address them in your own studio practice?

I see a lot of art made out of clay that has baggage; work that does not transcend evidence of process, technique, or firing method, work that’s inadvertently made out of clay that doesn’t support the concept or form of the piece. On the other hand I’m seeing really well executed, experimental and well-crafted works of art that happens to be made of clay being celebrated by the mainstream art world and supported by galleries who do not have a ceramic focus.

In my studio practice, I try to ask myself difficult questions about material use. Why am I using clay? Today I can articulate that I use ceramic for its physical properties: I can slip cast, hand build, or throw parts, accumulating elements quickly, and then attach them without a secondary adhesive. I use clay because I can cover forms in glazed surfaces that I’m intrigued by. I use clay because of its immediacy and malleability, its ability to capture spontaneous moments or to be smoothed into a buttery surface free of texture. Through my research and travels in Germany, China, Denmark, and Morocco I have a good sense of the history of ceramics and ceramic design. I appreciate how clay making connects people and cultures worldwide. However, when I step into my studio, I approach clay as a big chunk of nothing, with endless possibilities that do not need to reference any particular historical tradition to be relevant in 2014.