Monday, November 24, 2008
I sat down with Michaelene Walsh to talk about her work, her past, the best compliment she's ever received and why our culture is afraid of cute. The following is a transcript of our conversation:
BB- So I thought we could begin in the beginning, How did you get into clay? Did you start out as a ceramics person?
MW-Technically, I started out in school, not in ceramics at all. I ended up taking ceramics classes as part of a physical and occupation therapy. I was at a community college and I was required to take it.
So I took two or three semesters of just basic classes, hand-building , throwing. and it was in that environment that the teacher, this guy Peter Hessemer he created what I consider now to be this classic supportive environment, to ask questions, he would read the Harpers index every month when it came in, and he would read us articles, and there was always alot of discussion in the class room at the community college, there were alot of people working, so it was a real mixed group and I started (working), and I enjoyed it, but I wasn't really serious about pursuing it until I actually switched my major to psychology and I took more classes, and then I transferred to the University of Illinois. So the summer before I transferred there I did an internship.
BB- Where was that?
MW- The Flathead Indian Reservation,
BB- Okay, they have a residency there?
MW-It wasn't art related...It was a private school for troubled kids, and it basically ruined me on the idea of becoming a psych major, pretty much.
BB- What did you do there?
MW- Kind of like an outward bound thing, with kids with serious emotional problems. So it was six weeks, on the Flathead Indian Reservation with wool blankets, and cans of water, like coffee cans, where you had to boil your own water, and pitch a tent using your army fatigues.
BB-So it was a survivalist camp?
MW- Yes, Exactly. It was called "Survival and Challenger". So it was a portion of each over the course of a summer. Anyway to make a long story short, then I went to the University of Illinois, and I was studying psychology and I continued to take some art classes, and eventually that switched into it , well I started taking them more seriously, and then took Ceramics as my major.
BB- Did you start out as a potter?
MW- Entirely...other than the kind of dabbling classes at the community college, I didn't do any hand-building, it was all throwing. So Ron Kovatch, who was my teacher encouraged me to think about grad schools, so I did. I applied, and I got into Alfred.
BB- Wow! Rags to Riches story there...
MW- (laughs) Yeah its true, I really had no idea what it was. I didn't. Ron was not the kind of person to push, he wasn't a name dropper, he told me the places to apply and I did, and I thought well if I get in I'll go look at them. and uh...you know that was the one I got into.
BB-When you got there, was it sort of a shock...everyone else kind of knew what was going on and you were kind of the new kid?
MW- Yeah, and I was young. 23. Because I applied right after finishing undergrad...I was the youngest person in my class
BB- and you got tossed right into the mix...
MW-Yeah...and then I started hearing all the stories once I got in, about how hard it was, and how cutthroat it was... (laughs) but that wasn't really my experience at all. I had a very good experience there. very positive, and I just worked, so I went in as a potter. and the way I described it was I went in making pots with images on them, mostly drawings, really layered, slips, kind of not Ron Meyers-esque, but more painterly, I was looking at the Fauvists, really colorful, all low fire stuff. and then when I got to Alfred, John Gill came into my studio and said "these look like they should be handbuilt, and showed me a couple tricks to handbuilding, and I started handbuilding and the figure just sort of emerged off of the pot and became this physical thing. The figure was the important part.
I didn't really care so much about the function at that time, but it was really hard to let go, and I still cant let go of function. I still make cups, probably for that reason.
BB- That's one thing I wanted to ask, your functional work that I have seen, doesn't stray to far from the cups, and mugs. What is your fascination with that specific form? What keeps you interested in that form?
MW- I think it's the connection, that's what I like to use. Its the human connection, and to me it's like having a piece of somebody, and in the best way. To be able, everyday to have a chat with Adam (Posnak, who's mug she is drinking out of)...or to me that seems like a really good tool of communication or connection. I feel like I've kept it up because it does interest me to try to improve the details of something functional, I like that kind of problem solving. and then its also a place to work out some imagery, because its not always appropriate to make those small forms really big. It seems to fit, the imagery fits at that scale. I've always remained attached to it, because I think it is really a starting place, for awhile...with pots, with cups, and they way they become an icon for someone's work.
BB-Yeah, the cup always seems to be the microcosm that represents the whole body of work. If you have a really good cup, you can immediately tell what everything else will look like...
MW-I agree, it's the signature piece
MW-or it can be
BB- So you were saying that sometimes the things that work within the cups, don't work with the larger pieces...I know recently you've been making some larger sculptures...
How do you think some of the themes you explore on a smaller scale translate to a larger scale? The artists that came to mind are people like Jeff Koons, and Murakami, who make these huge, disgustingly cute things, and how the cuteness and the size create a tension...
MW- I fell like its still such new territory, that I've not yet entered it yet too much, the larger scale, but I think working at a smaller scale, its just automatically friendly..
MW- Approachable, cute, so like that last monkey that I made, if it had sat on a table, this big (gestures about 8 inches high), it would have seemed decorative, or it would have seemed like a book end or something...I've always been interested in monumental work, that seems to really address your body and figurative work too for that reason, I've always respected Doug Jeck's work, because it is so familiar to our own bodies. And its hyper-realistic, I'm not as interested in that when I work on a large scale as I am in something illustrative, I'm much more interested in the image, and what I call intuitive proportions, working at a scale that is big, and being intuitive on how it comes together...I'm not interested in illustrating something ...does that make sense?
MW- I have the idea of making a monkey and it kind of evolves as I work...and that's half the mystery.
So a lot of the work I made, and still make is in that median range (of size)...15 to 20 inches, small figures that started out as dolls, that's were that image kind of started, and then I've gotten away from it, and then I'll return to it, or again, its an approachable scale, and I think of the doll as a female object, it has -or it can have some feminist connotations sometimes...a commentary that addresses women more, or girls more...unlike a life size figure...that in between scale has kind of evolved for me as a meaningful scale, the larger work ..the Big Monkey, and I made a large squirrel too, I do feel like they start to have more of an eeriness, because they aren't in that friendly doll scale...they're much more eerie, and kind of menacing.
BB- Right...and that leads me another question, the median scale, and I think alot of your work operates in these in between places. in between sculpture and pottery, or between sculpture and functional work, between totemic and kitschy, between super cute and super creepy. Is that something you necessarily strive for, that ambiguous place?
MW- Its not necessarily striving, it seems to be what emerges. and sometimes I can be really intentional with it. I know how to change something from being too cute, if I'm uncomfortable with that, and vice versa, if something seems to scary. I can sort of pull it back a little bit, but I also feel that I'm getting better at knowing when to stop...when its just powerful. and it doesn't need to be changed, and its working, and it isn't one thing or the other, the ambiguity thing has always been an element in my work, or for along time, probably my favorite word is "Bittersweet", and that to me embodies that quality of being both. and the paradox of the two things meeting and being cohesive but also dissonant.
BB- Do you think of your work as subversive on some level, or is more like its operating on different levels at once...
MW- Thats a good question...I don't think of my work as subversive at all, but it might be. well, that's not true, some of the choices I make with surface, more recently, like having on whole piece all in tones of pewter and black and these kind of more shadowy colors, have to do with subverting or shifting some objects that could be taken as being fluffy, and bringing them down a notch and subverting that cuteness, or that friendliness, but not it a way that was meant to be nasty, more in a way that is supposed to be a little bit sad, so I guess it just depends on what I'm trying to subvert, so I don't know until much later, sometimes several years later.
BB- I have a question specifically about the shadow pieces. You do some pieces that are a right side up figure that are in color, and an upside down figure which is black-
MW- The shadows...
BB- is it a literal shadow, because sometimes it's not the same (figure)
MW- its not the same, in psychology, or in Jungian psychology the idea of shadow is what is latent, its not a bad thing actually, its more like what has yet to emerge, or to be developed, so often the figures will have an animal quality, and the animal is some sort of symbol for an aspect of a figure, so its looking at the things that are resting, or at rest, not necessarily dead...but waiting to be woken up-
BB- below the surface...
MW- below the surface, and in psychology when you can integrate your shadow, ostensibly become more whole. So it does have these psychological connotations
and I have one big piece that is virtually all shadows, all dark, dark toned figures, but there are also pieces that are bronze shoes or a feeling that are being preserved or being held and I like that too, like a frozen moment. I guess it depends on the context, how the shadow is used. The piece started in one way and as I finished it, it felt like it became something else. Rather than just being a shadow, in the that psychological sense, its started returning to a desire to hold something, or preserves something, to hold a moment, freeze it, to take a picture of it so to speak
BB-Almost like not letting parts of yourself slip in or out of the shadow, but preserve them as they are?
BB- Does Jungian psychology and your background in psychology, the archetypes, I mean, your work seems very archetypal, totemic, does that still play into it a lot?
MW- Definitely, more its the periphery, the ground that I am familiar with, but I'm most interested in actually, and I read alot of poetry. I'm interested in how images work, and figurative language, and how poets construct something using words, so I think that probably is my strongest footing, is reading. I would much rather read a book about how poets think, or how poets are writing, essays about poetry or poetry itself. Rather than art criticism, that's much more interesting to me, because I think it has more to do with how we work with an image, and I'm constantly fascinated by what people are attracted to, and I'm not saying sexually, but why is it that I want to make a monkey? For instance why was it that I had this notion to make ice cream cones, if you asked me ten years ago, I would not have said "I'm going to make ice cream cones" so the idea of an image as being something you can hit upon, because somehow you own it, or somehow it locks into a key with in you. That to me is what Art is all about. Knowing what your own imagery is about. Its not voice, its "what's my image?" for right now. and knowing what that is I think is really fascinating. and what I love to see when students find their own images.
BB- right. I painted Abraham Lincoln for years...(laughs)
MW- right and do you know why?
BB- Yeah, eventually I did, when I started I didn't...I was just obsessed with this image, and I had to work through it for a long time to realize why...
MW- Exactly, and then it becomes so rich for you to continue to play with that image. and he may come back, or some version of him may come back...but that's the archetype, its something that registers with us, and I don't think it ever leaves
BB- Do you think your studio practice could be compared to the way some poets work? Moving from one thing to another, and seeing it eventually as a thing you would read?
MW-Yeah! I hope so, I think that would be my ideal, um...but I think I have safety zones, that I'm not always happy about, but I'll return to something because I know it. I return to the figure because I know it, and I hope I find something new there, I guess its like potters working within, lets say a framework thats familiar, I can't remember when I made pots, what I returned to that was familiar, but its like having a comfort zone-
BB- I actually had a question about the ice cream cones. Its interesting because Tim Berg who you are teaching with now, also makes ice cream cones. His ice cream cones I think talk about consumption and finite resources, and a thing that will eventually be used up. But yours seem to be more about indulgence and instant gratification, something...bittersweet I guess? MW- I sort of agree...I think the ice cream is all about pleasure, and the shadow of pleasure, that were not really able to enjoy things in a way, as we get older. To me its this icon of childhood., and unadulterated pleasure, and as we get older, these are things I'm still discovering about those, is that as we get older things no longer have that purity. Its shifted, and its richer for that, so again its bittersweet, you cant go back. I wouldn't want to go back, there's a twinge of something a little more complex. You know? With that image, and I think a lot of work that's nostalgic is attempting to do that. Attempting to somehow take that beauty and tenderness and wonderfulness or pleasure of childhood but also look at the darkness there too, or the parts that aren't so good, or are a little bit more complex. Something of ...like Mark Ryden, he uses imagery of childhood along with this darker psychology, you tend to jump back and forth between this pleasant memory or nostalgic place and a more contemporary sensibility, where you're an adult. Crossing these bridges, these thresholds constantly
BB- Like the allegory of the cave, where ignorance is bliss, but once your shown the light you can never go back?
MW- Very good analogy...yeah
BB- I want go back, when I interviewed Sandy Skoglund, she talked about the "cutification process" and how really potent symbols, like the rabbit, which you use as well, the snake and other animals specifically, would undergo this cutification process, and lose all there potency as an image to become a commodity, or more approachable or accessible symbol that had lost all its power....
MW- I think that's a constant struggle with anyone who works with animal imagery, or the doll image, or things that have soft edges...or relate to the size of a baby...i thinks its dangerous territory for any artist to traipse around in ... I'm not afraid of cute...I embrace it, and I don't mind saying that my work can be saleable, because as an artist I think that's a viable reason to want to make something, because you want someone to own or have, or for it to be a part of their world. When I think commodification, I think mass quantity, I somehow make a distinction in my own mind ...to me mass production and commodification go hand in hand...and so it doesn't make me uncomfortable if I make something that is singular, that can be consumed so to speak...it doesn't feel wrong, because I know its all going through my hands and its labor of love in a way. ...
Also I'll give you my little tirade about why I think our culture is so afraid of cute...
and maybe this is a stretch, but I feel like anything that is associated with women pottery the crafts, cuteness, its all not taken seriously because in a sense women aren't taken seriously...the things women nurture or the things we care about, and I'm totally over generalizations here, I know that, but if you are going to make gender distinctions, the ways that women learn to be in the world, are not appreciated nor are the traditions. You go back into history, the crafts that relate to the home, to the body...so I think this issue of cute is a feminist issue. Why is that Richard Serra can put up an 80 foot cast iron whatever, and he's lauded as being this absolute genius, when what he's doing is shutting people off. But he's a genius, and you have a women create something that's equally well crafted, and because its soft and its welcoming its not taken seriously...because its not valued.
BB- So I guess the framework, or mindset would be that second class citizens produce second class products.
MW- Exactly, and its a way oversimplified argument, but I see it all the time, and I think alot of potters suffer from this notion that what they do is not important, and I think its absolutely ridiculous.
BB- I think all of your work has a feminine quality, or a sense of femininity to it...but not necessarily intentional, or it doesn't seem intentional...but its there, is that something you strive to put into it, or something that's latent? Either way I think its subversive...
MW-I think its both, I want people to feel a connection to my work, in a way they might feel a connection to a real animal in the woods or in the home....I want there to be that identification, and I think if I make it too sharp or too real or melodramatic of an image, its off-putting, it doesn't have that welcoming, ...again I think the words bittersweet or melancholy, sadness, ...I hope my work isn't pitiful, let me put it that way. (laughs)
I think the framework is that you feel a connection to this, because you are an animal, or you know animals.
One of the best compliments I ever got about my work was this gallery owner in Seattle, said "when I see your work it makes me want to weep."
MW- I thought that was amazingly powerful, because that's a good feeling, its not bitter tears, its this poignant release.
BB- A lot of the earlier work seemed to have a darker foreboding almost sinister edge, but the newer work seems to be a little bit brighter, have less of that edge, if not happier, was that that a conscious decision, or just something you worked through?
MW- Its probably more unconscious, and then it became conscious as I looked back. I think a lot of getting anywhere in my work is just looking at the cycles that occur, and changes...like I said earlier about imagery I think we do have these stock images that we return to, and we are vigilant or we think enough, or reflect enough, we can see patters, or cycles returning. So I think the sinister part was tied in with feeling like I was completely untethered and ungrounded in my life and it came through in the work. a sense of more tension, an uncertainty in my day to day life, and then as I came to LSU and got more settled in, got married, getting dogs (laughs), I feel that security provides this groundwork, my intent has also changed. Initially I wouldn't have wanted someone ten years ago, I wouldn't wanted someone to say my work is cute. Whereas now I can own that more and say "okay, that's fine" I've accepted those things more.
BB- You've moved a lot, before you came to LSU.
MW- Yeah, a lot.
BB- How many years did you move around?
MW- Six years, moving every six months to a year, to move from place to place and get paid nothing...it was fun and I wouldn't change it, it was an amazing experience to be able to do all that, i didn't really know better...to say I wont take this job because its ten states away, (laughs), I just said, "you want me to come, I'll come"....so iI was a bit naive, but it was good, but after awhile it becomes very taxing.
BB- Previously you had mentioned a trip to Mexico last summer, and possibly going again...
MW-I'm not, I wish I was...but I went last summer, and if I can swing it, I'm going to go to Mexico for part of my Sabbatical.
BB-How do you think moving from place to place, and being in all the different environments, every school is its own beast in a way, and traveling to mexico and other places, how do you think moving that much has affected your work , and your studio practice?
MW- I feel like my studio practice is always relatively stable, meaning that there haven't been any huge dramas, but I think what it does, the moving and traveling, and being in different places... Its opened me up to more acceptance to what does come to me. Its also made me much more critical of my own work too.
MW-Yeah...its harder to carry on, like when I went to Mexico, it was harder to come back and see what I had been making without thinking that I wanted all the experiences I had just had to input the work. There was this desire to really branch off in a new direction, so I feel like I have this editor, I think all artists have this. The public. and its really hard . More of the genuine work I do is in writing, drawing, in a private zone, and then slowly it starts to trickle out into a more public sphere. The challenge of any artist is try to take the experiences they have, traveling, or seeing new things, or seeing other artists work or talk, to take those little sparks of whether its envy or desire or information, and process them, so that the work can go forward. That sounds wishy-washy, but for instance, the big monkey that I made, where that came from really was in Mexico seeing the Olmec heads...that are 12 feet high, and their just colossal, and overpowering, and I thought " I want to make something like that"...so I have to start at a scale I can manage...that monkey never would have happened, and it was truly experimental, if I hadn't gone to mexico and seen those heads...so there's an illustrated example, but the worst thing I can do is isolate myself...or any artist, because its tempting, its very tempting....to do that, and sometimes its needed, but I think by getting out and seeing alot I learned to be more thoughtful and more critical about my path.
BB- I think the myth of the isolated artist, whether it was ever really a myth of not, today is impossible with the internet, blogs ...its hard to be isolated. In the information age, a new magazine comes out everyday, a new blog, a new website, we are just bombarded with information...at some point you have to start integrating that, I cant imagine that too many artists are working in isolation...
MW- I think too you can choose time frames where you are isolating yourself with the intent of working out an idea...and the older I get, I'm not that old, the more I see that I really like time where there are no interruptions, no email, no sound even, nothing...its more about solitude than isolation...but is near impossible to not be apart of what's happening within the culture, you have to work really hard...where 15 years ago you could avoid quite a bit...
BB-Where would you position yourself in the larger movements in historical ceramics...
MW-I still feel like I have a pretty strong link, although I sometimes resent it, as a traditional figurative artist. A lot of the concerns of my work have to do with animal psychology, humans are animals...so I think i can see associations with people who work strictly figurative level, maybe not so realistic, like Judy Manellis, or Akio Takamori's earlier work, which is more about gesture, and mark making, and his hand and brush work, and archetypes I think his older work had that quality...and maybe a little bit that fits in with the funk movement...the idea of using the figure as pop art, having a loose narrative...
I was in this book "the figure in ceramics" and at the time I really resented being included in that book, and I don't think the editors know that..
BB- They do now...(laughs)
MW-I did not want to be in that book, because at that time I was trying to break down the figure...I was just using hands at the time, it was frustrating and it still can be frustrating to me, to be lumped in this figurative category...in my ideal world I would like to be considered more of a person who works with clay (laughs), I don't know what I'm going to make, but I'm a person who works with clay...my idols, the people who I heroize are people who work more poetically, not always locked into being figurative or being functional or being some hybridization, people whose work I think is powerful...
It could be any or all of those things...so the categorization could serve a purpose, but it can be uncomfortable...I would probably put myself in with people who make loosely figurative work, and I think I keep cycling back to the figure because it possesses this certain psychology that sometimes a certain image can't get at...I consider animals and people to be figurative...I don't make the distinction with the human...making these birds on snowballs, they're something I've been making for awhile...and that's figurative, but to me its more about poetry than it is about the figure...its an image, its an image of this evanescent thing, that cant be...a snowball is this beautiful, unattainable form, snow its so ephemeral, a bird. its fleeting...to me that's not figural, but its a literal image, so I understand why its seen as figurative...I'm kind of contradicting myself
BB-No that's great, because I've wondered myself what the birds were about...I love the image, but I had no idea where you were coming from.
MW- Like a poet, you get this image, and it just seems so weirdly perfect...and I think that for me is this iconic moment...two disparate things coming together in a way that's really beautiful. To me it's really beautiful...
I think I can do a lot of renditions of that to hit the right note...to try to figure out why I want to keep doing it...
BB-Is there any one poet everyone should read?
MW-Mary Oliver, or Sharon Olds.
BB- Thank you so much...
MW- Thank you...
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