Robin Hill: First of all, how are you?
Elisa D’Arrigo: I’m doing well. Thank you so much for offering the pleasure of this conversation and time with you, for your deeply thoughtful questions, and for guiding me towards pondering and sharing my thoughts about a few things. And of course, many thanks for taking the time to think about my work and see it in real life.
RH: Congratulations on your beautiful exhibition, materializing, recent ceramics at Elizabeth Harris Gallery in New York. It’s an uneasy and exciting time, for artists especially. Being “sent to our rooms” for a year was a huge gift and privilege not available to many. We are now seeing each other, and art work, in real life for the first time in over a year. I am interested in your experience of introspection while sheltering in place. How did you change? How did your work change?
ED: My experience with sheltering in place did not necessarily give me more time to work, or to focus in, because it required an intensification and further juggling /managing of outwardly driven caregiving responsibilities that already existed. I can say that my way of working became ever more concentrated, as I made use of small chunks of time, frequently interrupted by lengthy intervals. Reflecting upon the pieces I made during the pandemic, they seem denser, more concentrated. I think of them as falling into two vague categories or “mini-series.” They are either somewhat head-like, and rather self–contained, conserving or summoning their inner resources, or they convey a figural twisting, wriggling, attempt to re-position, echoing personally and collectively experienced responses to this unsettling time. Many, but not all, of the works are darker in palette than intended due to the use of copper oxide which I was not in the habit of using prior. I just happened to have some, so I took a chance and impulsively used it, embracing and continuing with the not-quite-expected coloration. The darkness did feel appropriate. We were all in the dark, searching for points of light. I am energized, as well as initially chagrined, by those adjustments to sensibility and expectation that glazing often gives rise to when the unplanned occurs. Being resourceful and using what is at hand was in the air, as people were repurposing various materials into PPE, capturing wild yeast to make bread, sewing home-made masks, snail-mailing hand-made postcards, walking long distances for transportation.
RH: Were there particular obstacles to the physical making of your work? Did you learn new skills or approaches?
ED: Similar to many artists, my particular studio circumstances became instantly more complicated during the lockdown, since I was not able to travel to the communal ceramic studio where I rent a small space, and where the kiln is located.
Like many, I adjusted by dragging materials to work with at home – in this case, some boxes of clay and a few hundred jars of glaze, plus tools. Since mid-March 2020, I’ve been making and glazing my ceramic works at home, a dusty, messy thing to do. This necessitates transporting work back and forth to the kiln in fragile greenware or raw glazed state. I now do this by subway (I was previously able to score a ride every month or so). I’m now adept at the finer points of moving fragile clay work around in shopping bags.
Because my access to firings decreased, I doubled down on my process of applying surface and color with underglaze and colored slips on wet clay, in order to accomplish as much as possible with fewer firings. I tried to do more with less, and with what was at hand.
RH: I have been thinking about two previous catastrophic events that ravaged New York; Hurricane Sandy and 9/11. We are now (I hope) in the aftermath of Covid, navigating a huge paradigm shift brought not only by a year and a half of social distancing and the horrific death toll Covid has wrought on the world, but also by the murder of George Floyd and the renewed urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement. We continue to deal with the trauma brought on by the former occupant of the White House, as individuals and as a planet, and have been given an opportunity to reevaluate what citizenship looks like and to scrutinize the ways in which we are complicit in the oppression of others. I’m wondering how these paradigm shifts have impacted your work and life as an artist. What are your thoughts about art as a transformative tool, especially for younger artists coming up through the ranks?
ED: I don’t think I’ve processed the experience of this pandemic and events of the past year and a half sufficiently to fully or even accurately answer. I still feel in the midst, playing catch up to the ever-changing “new normal.”
I frequently reflected on how my improvisational approach was well suited to making work during a pandemic. It allowed what was around me to come into the work. It opened up possibilities. Improvisation is like non-verbal introspection. It requires staying in the moment and having a conversation with what unfolds. My states of mind came through in the way I manipulated, put together, and often took apart the works as their forms materialized and sometimes dematerialized on my table. Forms I did not know I was thinking about revealed themselves. Not knowing exactly what I was doing, but doing it anyway, reflected and felt in sync with what was happening in the world.
I kept seeing a mental image of everything being hurled into the air. Where things land will not, and cannot, be where they once were. Despite all the tragedy, I feel hope in the bravery, ingenuity, creativity and heart that has been on display during these challenging events and times.
I find joy in the way abstract form can communicate meaning, emotion, and even humor. I think art can be a transformative tool in general, for anyone, regardless of age. I can only speak for myself. It has been a route to self-realization, re-invention. Some of the best and most inspiring work ever has been made of discarded materials. Inner urgency transforms materials and media. The pandemic, especially, has made me even more grateful for community, in all its forms.
RH: Your early sewn work made of cloth, acrylic paint and thread was very labor intensive and spoke so beautifully about time, care, repair and persistence. Beyond the eccentric beauty and appeal of the objects themselves, the work spoke on a subliminal level about making the best of what we have, giving new meaning to the expression “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Can you talk about your early forays into art making and how your work has evolved over time?
ED: Thank you for that eloquent and sensitive description of my sewn works. After graduating from SUNY New Paltz in 1975 with a BFA in ceramics, I moved back to NYC, (I grew up in the Bronx), and continued working in clay until approximately 1981, when I found myself needing a different challenge. I felt drawn to work with materials that were not as responsive as clay, had different properties, or perhaps most importantly, were less familiar to me. That began a decades-long investigation into making sculpture that used or combined materials such as paper, cloth, thread, wire, wax, wood, bronze, paper-mâché, and clay (both fired and unfired), all the while incorporating various craft processes in their construction.
I first began using cloth (mostly muslin) in the 1980s as a supporting layer over Styrofoam or wire armatures, and under paper-mâché, unfired clay, wax, or acrylic mediums – sometimes all of those combined. I made work that was free-standing, on the wall, or that extended from wall to floor. Over time, I gradually did away with the understructures and surfaces and began working with cloth alone, which I stiffened and stained with acrylic mediums, paints, and pigments. I used pliable cloth strips that were soaked with that acrylic mixture. It was somewhat like working with clay slabs, and muscle memory figured into the way I manipulated the material. I eventually began repurposing my family’s used clothing. What began as a move towards economy added subtle references to the body and personal history. I realized sewing was the best way to attach things made of cloth, opening up a world of expressive possibilities connected to embroidery I’d done as a child.
From the 1990s until 2010, desiring a flexible tactility for the work, I constructed pieces by hand-sewing flat or hollow elements (many, sometimes hundreds), formed entirely from layers of cloth or paper. These densely stitched, undulating, forms have no under-structure and are held together by thread alone. Seams defined contours. Stitches created lines, marks and surface. When I thought about the feeling of movement I wanted for these works, I was aiming for a hum, or a vibration. There was a devotional and also meditative aspect to the process. I liked to think their labor-intensiveness harnessed time and memory as materials.
Sculpture, drawing, and painting were dissolved in the sewn works, recalling my work in ceramics, a medium in which these categories are already conflated. This is what first attracted me to ceramics and what intrigues me still. My growing impulse to introduce humor and a more fluid gesture was uniquely compatible with clay’s immediacy. Following that impulse, in 2010 I began working with ceramics once again.
RH: A decades-long art career can yield so much perspective on the primary gestalt that exists throughout a person’s work over time. What are the threads that connect your bodies of work over time? Are there ones that have been consistent and known to you all along, or are some just now coming into focus?
ED: My work has evolved in a circular manner. Although I’ve varied processes and materials over the years there’s been a recurrence of concerns and images, such as references to the body, nature, and the expression of states of mind and even humor through abstract form.
I can see that my work over time has built upon things I’ve found compelling since childhood: drawing, and the magic of creating a line, whether through traditional drawing materials, a hand-sewn stitch (my grandmother was an expert embroiderer, and I was taught the basics), a clunky cloth covered wire, or a twisted clay tube. The search for form, especially three-dimensional form, and how abstract form can communicate meaning and emotion. A love of dance, and how movement and position can be incredibly expressive, and even convey humor.
I continue to be compelled by the way we inhabit and imagine our bodies from the inside out, and by the psychological and corporeal aspects of containment. The inside creates the outside, and vice versa. My work has often exuded a figural presence –vessel forms have been present in much of my work, and because of their need to be hollow, my ceramics especially evoke the notion of interiority, or animation from within.
I have also been involved with drawing in various ways – whether making actual works on paper that either incorporated or were collages of many (sometimes hundreds) doodled images, or “drawing” with thread, by sewing repeated, insistent hand-stitched marks that also served to connect the components of my cloth sculptures. Ceramics now satisfies that drawing impulse for me- perhaps because working in clay is a direct mind to hand process –I’m thinking through the material.
In retrospect, I realize I’ve incorporated various craft processes into my work (the artist Heide Fasnacht pointed this out to me), using materials such as paper, paper-mâché, cloth, thread, wire, wood, Styrofoam, wax, paint and clay (both unfired and fired). The resultant abstract forms, which were wrapped, carved, torqued, woven, sewn, or accreted in layers, conveyed my fascination with the innate psychological qualities of those processes.
RH: The surfaces of your ceramic works are very painterly, vibrating with pattern and repetition. I’d love to look at the surfaces through a magnifying glass. The push-pull between the macro to the micro is a powerful aspect of the work. The surfaces evoke skin-like associations found in nature, in and on bodies and even within the built environment (think mold on a concrete wall or barnacles on a pier). Because of this, the pieces resonate as living, rather than inert, objects. Are there other things you have collected, imagined, studied, or observed that have this quality (visually, formally, or conceptually, or simply in the realm of consciousness and experience)?
ED: When you asked me a similar question while we were at my show, my immediate thought went to the notion of horror vacui (fear of empty space), and how that term can be used to describe intensely surfaced and patterned Islamic architecture, Byzantine mosaics, or pre-Colombian art, for example…all of which I’ve been attracted to for most of my life and remain fascinated by. Your question also made me think about my early interest in the microscopic, in cellular structure, and how we and all things are composed of multitudes of cells and microscopic forms. We are also all filled with countless thoughts, notions and memories which can surface unbidden. So much is contained in any being. I can’t say I consciously set out to convey or depict any of that, but it is interesting to ponder as experiences I am drawing from. I once had an extended conversation with the artist Robert Guillot about the size of patterning relative to the scale of a form, in order for it to be truly convincing. I think about that conversation often.
My astute friend, the painter Jill Nathanson, pointed out to me that the word “pattern” is not quite apt, and I realized she is right, and I have perhaps been using the word as a way of describing something which is not so definable. Pattern can intimate something applied to a surface, something that exists on the top layer of something.
RH: In the glazing process, one can’t know the results until the work is fired which, as an artist profoundly concerned with surface, must feel like painting with a blindfold on. Can you talk about your process and how you manage to produce such sophisticated and resolved color schemes and interactions, and the role that accidents play in your process?
ED: It’s reassuring to hear good things about my glazing skills since that part is so challenging and my general feeling is one of uncertainty. In terms of process, the surface of a piece is largely determined when constructing a piece, when the clay is wet. This surface, with its undulations, edges, and irregularities provides a foundation for how glaze will interact with the clay membrane or skin or wall, however one wishes to describe this material which, along with the empty space inside with its outwards expansion and pressure, creates the form of the work. The way the glaze appears, any markings, variations, areas of pooling or directionality of melt, is in fact an intrinsic part of the form, not just on the form.
I reinvent the wheel for each piece. I don’t take notes, and usually don’t measure. The glazing is also largely improvised. I’ve set things up so there is a discovery process for each piece-I want to be surprised and find something new. That doesn’t always work.
I am fascinated by how the ceramic surface can be activated and even transformed by the alchemical process of glazing. Glaze and clay are fused together. What began as a functional technology (making vessels watertight), also provided a rich means of expression used for thousands of years by a vast array of cultures.
While the forms of my works are made in a matter of hours or days, the glazing can take months as I repeatedly re-fire, seeking an alive surface, depth and coloration that will convey the personality of the piece.
It’s not exactly like working with blindfolds on, but more like dealing with a once removed process – much has to be imagined. Even though glazes look completely different in their raw state, I usually know in my mind’s eye how they will look once fired. What is unclear until the kiln is opened is whether those glazes will work on the piece itself. Color, surface and sometimes pattern combined with complex form is challenging. Each piece requires its own solution, and there is a lot of back and forth. I often end up with the original glazing barely visible if at all. It is similar to how a painter might scrape down, underpaint, paint over, etc. But with ceramics that process involves re-glazing and re-firing. And then there’s the matter of glaze application: painted, dribbled, poured, dipped, sprayed, spritzed, sponged, flicked? All yield different results. I’ve made many test tiles, and stare at them a lot. In the end, each piece is a test.
RH: Vulnerability and fragility are poetic qualities of your work that I love. The forms slump and lean under their own weight, an attribute of the medium, but one you don’t try to counteract, but rather work with. The forms, despite their pulsating radiance, seem to reside in that interstitial space between rest and work, action and inaction. In 2016 Tricia Hersey founded the Nap Ministry, an organization that examines the liberating power of naps, geared towards the BIPOC community which has disproportionately shouldered the burden of low wage labor in this country. Her practice is grounded in “rest as resistance”. I see this poetic dichotomy between strength and vulnerability in your work. Your forms appear to be resting, if not collapsing, in a tender self-knowing and self-actualized way. Can you talk about the relationship between work and rest in your creative life? What do you do to revive yourself and connect with the world beyond your art?
ED: What a sensitive reading of the positioning in my pieces. The Nap Ministry is a brilliant and poetic project and idea. Rest can spark creativity as it allows the mind to wander and make new connections. I’m not much of a napper, but I’m definitely a daydreamer, and find myself staring into space a lot. The nature of working in clay captures the space between action and inaction. I think of the finished pieces as being in the midst of movement; the viewer is coming upon them in a paused moment. My hope is the viewer can envision their next move in their imagination.
With my improvisational approach, decisions are made in the moment as I respond to cracks, slumps, and areas on the verge of collapse. I might intervene, or just let things happen. It is interesting to consider that what was once so malleable during the intense activity of making, eventually solidifies. That feels like a metaphor for life if there ever was one.
That probably doesn’t answer your question. I think what I am doing is the opposite of what you mentioned – my art is what revives me. My working process is a dialogue with the piece, a dialogue with myself. The unconscious always figures in, reverie occurs. Making work is both excavation and discovery. I relish that and find it rejuvenating.
RH: Congratulations on the inclusion of your work in Shapes from Out of Nowhere: Ceramics from the Robert A. Ellison Jr. Collection. When walking through the exhibition I was struck with the quietness and understated nature of your pieces, in contrast to the more highly designed nature of other works in the exhibition. Do you think this quality in your work stems from your versatility as a sculptor who works with diverse materials and processes, and therefore your possible lack of attachment to, or freedom from, ceramic sculpture as a culture unto itself? How would you describe the conversation you are have having with the history of ceramics, sculpture, or any other medium for that matter?
ED: Meeting and getting to know Robert Ellison, as well as his partner artist Rosaire Appel, was one of the high points of my life over these last few years. In the midst of our exchange, and the run of the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert sadly passed away. His gifts to the world will continue to inspire and enthrall, as he not only donated all the works in the exhibition to the Met, but also donated two extensive collections of historical ceramics as well. He also devoted himself to scholarship on and collecting the work of legendary artist George Ohr.
I’m of course thrilled to be included in “Shapes from Out of Nowhere”, but what is especially moving is experiencing the show at the Met, a museum that contains remarkable ceramics that express the minds, hearts, beliefs and imagination of many artists and cultures, spanning thousands of years.
I don’t think I’m attached to ceramic sculpture as a culture. In fact, I’m not really sure what that is, which probably proves the point. I am using clay right now, after a hiatus of nearly 30 years, because l had unfinished business with the material and what it elicits from me. Simply put: I missed the stuff.
I wanted to do in clay what I yearned to do since age seven when I saw a comic book of a potter losing control and accidentally making an eccentrically shaped form. I knew the material would assist me in making forms I could not really imagine, and I also envisioned them as vases which would take on other sculptural characteristics and also introduce an element of humor. My thinking was, why can’t sculpture be functional? Let’s blur some boundaries. Functionality was an aspect of ceramics that interested me initially – I was moved by things that functioned but did more – as ceremonial objects do. Why can’t function follow form? I was interested in the and not the or.
The vase form, with its necessary orifice, has become my muse with this work. Functionality implies use, whether real or imagined, and suggests an intimate involvement with the viewer, inviting touch, collaboration, and even domesticity.
In my first show of ceramics at Elizabeth Harris Gallery in 2012. I put flowers in some of the pieces and was kept busy changing the water and getting fresh flowers for the duration of the exhibition. The show was titled “some vases”.
RH: It’s such a privilege to be able to make art, and to have the encouragement and affirmation from friends, family, collectors, writers, and galleries/museums. Ultimately, time, money, space, access, and health determine what an artist can do on their own. If you could wave a magic wand and realize a work in a material, scale, or location that’s been hitherto out of reach, what would that be?
ED: The one thing I’d ask the magic wand to wave into existence would be a kiln in my home studio, so I wouldn’t have to bring pieces back and forth for firing. But alas, my building won’t allow a kiln. That is probably not optimal use of the wand, but I have everything else necessary right now to make the work I need to make. More time would help, but can a magic wand do that?
RH: In the spirit of carrying others along, whose work has had an impact on you, (living/dead, known/unknown, trained/untrained)? What aspect of their work, or way of working, do you think about the most?
ED: Eva Hesse’s work has had a significant impact on me. Her work feels like a foundational layer. I have read Lucy Lippard’s book so many times. Hesse’s rigor, penchant for the absurd, and the exposed processes she used to generate sculptures, imbued with personal and psychological meaning, continues to inspire me. When one sees her work in person, the sense of touch and exquisite subtlety give the pieces such an alive, breathing presence. There are many lessons in her work.
I still think about the “Black Folk Art” show that I saw at the Brooklyn Museum in the 1980s. It was where I saw the work of Bill Traylor and James “Son Ford” Thomas for the very first time. From humble materials, and under unlikely circumstances, they made riveting, mysterious and completely authentic work that reveals their life experiences. There are other “outsider” artists I could list here that I frequently think about, and who invented processes that eloquently conveyed insight into who they were as people, which would otherwise be unknown without their work. Judith Scott and James Castle come to mind. The lesson: one can make art anywhere and from anything, and by unexpected means.
The value of being part of community of artists cannot be underestimated. As companions in studio practice, my artist friends have all kept on expanding and deepening their work. We are seeing each other through and carrying each other along. These friends have all been an inspiration in the way they have handled their lives and persevered with their art.
About the artists:
Elisa D’Arrigo was born and raised in The Bronx, NY, receiving a BFA in ceramics from SUNY New Paltz in 1975. “materializing, recent ceramics” is D’Arrigo’s 11th solo show with Elizabeth Harris. She has had numerous solo exhibitions, including at the High Museum of Art, David Bietzel Gallery, Luise Ross Gallery, Lehman College Art Gallery, and Bannister Gallery at Rhode Island College.
Robin Hill focuses on ideas about reclamation and transformation, exploring the intersection of drawing, photography, and sculpture. Recent solo exhibitions include Lennon-Weinberg, Inc., JayJay Contemporary Art, Art Space 1616, and Another Year in LA. Hill is the founder of S.E.E.P. (Society for Education and Exchange with Potluck) which showcases the research of critically engaged peers in the arts and is a Professor in the Art Studio Program, Department of Art and Art History, at the University of California-Davis. Current projects include”Going to the Meadow,” a curatorial project with Ulla Warchol. The show opens at ArtYard in the fall.