Maria Britton

Kristen Jensen visited by Maria Britton

I came across Kristen’s sculptures roughly five years ago during Bushwick Open Studios. She had a teeny ceramic piece or two on display. My memory is not accurate, but from time to time, they pop up in my mind as tiny porcelain bites glazed with a little gold. During our visit in her sun-filled studio in Bushwick, we talk about her path to ceramics, sewing, collections of ephemeral items, shoulder pads, and more.

Kristen’s studio space has moved between various locations over the years, but for now is located in her apartment. One wall of her studio has shelving for storage and the opposite wall has a table and sewing machine. Kristen collects all kinds of fabrics, but her soft sculptures are mostly made of denim and used clothing. On the windowsill is a remnant of one of her broken sculptures, a ceramic vessel made in the shape of a foot. It broke around the ankle. I imagine most sculptors working in clay have unfortunate stories of pieces shattering from an accidental bump. Kristen shares a few of her stories with me. Kristen’s sculptures most predominantly consist of both fabric and clay, but she works in other materials as well as performance. She sews at this studio and does her ceramic work at a clay studio.

We start the visit looking at some spindly-legged cedar tables that support smaller sculptures. She torched the cedar tables, accentuating the texture of the woodgrain and giving them a charcoal finish. Like the cedar tables, the surfaces of her clay pieces and soft sculptures retain a memory of their histories. Her attraction to clay has to do with its relation with the body and its ability to hold marks. She says, “it remembers how you handle it. It remembers when you fire it.” Kristen takes a slow pace in hand building clay vessels as opposed to throwing pots on a wheel, which is much faster. She says that the atmospheric firing processes she prefers foil the meditative nature of how she builds with clay. Atmospheric firing methods, like pit firing or wood firing, mark the surface of the clay during the actual firing, leaving a smokey image on the clay’s surface.  

The frustrations and failures of working with clay inform her process. Kristen unwraps a large vessel from its packed up storage state, peeling back a moving blanket to reveal this cracked and put back together vessel. It broke in the firing. The shards look like they should fit together perfectly, but they don’t. Kristen says that while firing, this piece broke in dynamic ways. She put the pieces back together to create this fractured vessel. She intentionally uses clay not suitable for making large forms to make large forms, understanding the likelihood of “failure”. Clay is a volatile medium, and Kristen purposefully pushes the limits of clay’s physical properties. 

Thinking about clay’s ability to hold a history makes me think about the memory of the fabric too. The used fabrics in her soft sculptures also contain a recorded history. Kristen collects different kinds of fabrics and chooses to work primarily with denim because it is such a recognizable fabric. For her, denim is a democratic fabric. We get on the topic of the current state of denim and the difficulty of finding actual denim with the rise of fast fashion and stretchy fake jeans. She’s drawn to older items of clothing for her fabric source, including bits of fabric from her and her husband’s clothing. She shows me one patch cut from her beloved silk blouse with a faint floral pattern. The larger soft sculptures are stuffed with bean bag filler, and the smaller soft sculptures, which I see up close in her studio, are stuffed with shredded bills and papers, rocks, and sometimes tea for fragrance.  

I ask Kristen about her background in art. She went to school in Syracuse and studied printmaking and drawing. Between undergrad and grad school, she made art with a specific idea in mind, which usually led her to learning a new process or working with a new material. This is what brought her to clay. Using porcelain, she slip cast old bathing caps in a series of 12. After that piece, she moved to other materials then returned to clay towards the end of grad school. She repeated that previous mold making process, but it wasn’t working. She started pressing the clay into the molds and then moved to hand building.  

She shows me a small ceramic bowl with a leather strap that she will probably wear or include in a future performance although all of the details have not been fully articulated in her head. She opens a jar with little unfired balls of porcelain. She went on a trip with friends to Staten Island to dig up some clay. On that trip she found several different types of clay. One of the clays is too crumbly to build with so she plans on making a slip, a mixture of clay, water, and other materials that can be used in many different ways with clay.  

We shift focus to some nearby works in progress based on her collection of wire hangers. Kristen tells me that she has a real attraction to ephemeral items, garbage, and mundane things. This series of silver hangers are based on bent and misshapen wire hangers Kristen collects. The original wire hangers are bent and shaped by whatever previous forces they met. She sees them as portraits full of personality. They have distinct shapes and curves formed most likely by someone’s hand to fulfill an immediate need. Kristen recreates the wire hangers out of silver. She has some experience working in metal-smithing. She talks about the final presentation and finishing touches they need.

Kristen brings up another collection she has been amassing. 
Somewhere in her studio is a large trash bag full of shoulder pads. Although the bag full of them is tucked away, out of reach -- probably better for the sake of the studio visit -- I am thrilled to meet a fellow shoulder pad enthusiast! There’s something about shoulder pads, whether cheaply manufactured or well-designed, that makes them beautiful objects. Kristen holds onto them for a future costume or who knows what. I have certain shoulder pads that have lived mixed in with my sewing supplies for years.

Recently Kristen invested in a sewing machine intended for making sails, while it was on sale. She has worked with a Janome and an industrial sewing machine in the past. Her machine for sewing sails can handle multiple layers of heavy fabrics. Sewing machines can be so specific in their functions that people who sew a lot seem to rely on a couple machines for different needs, like sewing heavy or delicate fabrics or special stitches. Another part of Kristen’s practice includes sewing bonnets and pinafores for herself, like her own uniform. 

The first few soft sculptures Kristen made were adapted from bean bag chair patterns. Now she makes her own patterns. She says it’s an interesting process and takes some getting used to. “Even if you’ve done sculpture, it’s totally different--like reverse engineering something. This is the idea of the final form I want to make. How do I literally make a two dimensional thing that will add up to that?” Kristen talks about how the nuances of pattern making and sewing can make or break attempts at elegant forms. 

We wrap up the studio visit with Kristen telling me about her work’s relationship to the body. Looking at her work, she speaks about where a body could fit. She points to one piece and says maybe that’s a neck rest. She refers to another vessel, saying it’s roughly the size of a torso. While we don’t talk directly about the performance component of her work, her pointing out where a body could go illuminates the potential development of a performance. Her sculptures look like they are doing what they are supposed to do, and her own body and actions fit right in as a fleeting yet vital component.

For more information about Kristen, please visit her website.

Lien Truong visited by Maria Britton

Lien Truong and I met a few years ago during an opening for her solo show at The Carrack in Durham, NC. We share a common interest in everything about fabric, from the history of textiles to the physical qualities of fabric. This is my first visit to Lien’s studio in Chapel Hill, NC. 

Lien’s studio is lined with massive paintings in progress from her series called Mutiny in the Garden. She’s working on a deadline for a solo show and has been pulling some late nights. Her Mutiny in Garden series includes large paintings with gestural strokes of bright colors and realistically painted imagery melded together into chaotic all-over compositions. In her statement about this series, Lien says that her “works are a frenetic amalgamation of western and Asian painting techniques and philosophies. Working within a type of blended history painting, the works agitate notions of a dominant painting lens.” These history paintings are piled high with snippets from America’s violent and racist past and present, pointing to upsetting truths and examples of resistance and protest. The series is based on themes from Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire, in which he paints a landscape from its “savage” or natural state through humanity’s rise, destruction, and final desolation.   

I ask Lien how she typically starts her paintings. She’s not big on sketching things out. First, she selects the landscape and textile designs which lead her to the colors for the gestures and background. Examples of the landscapes depicted in the series include the Dismal Swamp, Monticello, and Newtown, CT. Lien tells me that the gradient background functions as a hybrid of the horizon line found in Western art and the void found in Asian art. After adding gestural swipes of color, she intuitively decides where to place historically significant landscapes and painted textile samples. She works back and forth between the intuitive and the realistic components, striking a volatile balance between the two. Throughout the series, Lien paints ocean waves using a traditional Asian approach to painting water, which she says relates to immigration. Attaching the clusters of painted silk panels and sewing the lines of gold leaf obi thread are the final steps. 

The moments of abstraction within Lien’s paintings offer a brief pause from the chaotic compositions and references to violence. Lien stresses the importance of taking time to just sit with her work and look. She says she will sometimes take pictures of the works and look at them when she’s at home. I do the same thing. When I’m at home, I draw on top of the smart phone images of the work in progress so I have some notes for the next time I am in the studio. 

Our visit goes in and out of the past and the present. We each talk about how our bodies of work have changed and evolved in ways that we had not anticipated. The concept of unlearning is on both of our minds. We talk about our need to unravel certain aspects of the ever-present white male perspective from our own approaches to making art. Lien loves the work of Kerry James Marshall and has been influenced by his work for a long time. Other artists we talk about include Inka Essenhigh, Shinique Smith, Alicia Gibson, and Eva Hesse.

Lien shows me her set up for painting on silk, which seems like a labor intensive process. The silk painting she’s working on now depicts the lynching of Mexican-Americans by the Texas Rangers. The silk is stretched with little claw-like hooks attached to a lightweight frame. She uses high flow fluid acrylics and metallic paint pens. After the painting is complete, she cuts it into panels. The raw edges of the silk panels are burned. The silk used for the clustered panels attached to her paintings comes from China. She tells me about traveling to Vietnam to find some authentic silk. Due to the high demand for silk, there are many fabrics that are a blend of synthetic fibers and silk. On her trip, she met a silk maker in a village outside Hanoi who taught her how to test silk for authenticity. The way to prove if silk is real or synthetic is to burn it. Synthetic fabrics melt when burnt. Pure silk burns, and the singed portions easily break off. The concept of authenticity is a significant theme running through Lien’s work. 

Turning to a painting in progress that is predominantly yellow and black, Lien tells me how this one explores the Asian-American experience. The middle of the yellow portion of the painting features Manzanar, one of the Japanese Internment camps located in the United States where Japanese American citizens were incarcerated because of their race from 1942 until 1945, during WWII. Surrounding the depiction of Manzanar are sweeps of color on which she realistically paints specific fabric patterns from Japanese textiles from the mid 1900s. The painting makes references to the racist Yellow Peril ideology which depicts East Asians as a monstrous threat to the white Western world. This ideology was first used by Germany as a means of spreading white supremacy in the colonization of China and Japan in the 1890s. Fred Korematsu and Richard Aoki are also referenced in this painting. After our visit, Lien sends me an image of the completed painting along with the title, The Peril of Angel's Breath

The Peril of Angel's Breath, 2018, oil, silk, acrylic, American 19th century cotton, vintage obi mourning fabric, gold leaf vintage obi thread on canvas, 96" x 72"

The clusters of cut silk panels offer some physical breath to the work as they are free to move and flutter. Lien paints textile patterns from different historical eras and geographical regions in each painting from the series and also includes a few collaged pieces of fabric. The textile patterns are wrapped up in the gestural marks. Lien tells me these gestures refer to the body and Abstract Expressionism, but instead of being purely about the ego, they are about people, the collective as opposed to the individual. After talking about the power dynamics of the textile trade, we move onto which metallic paints are the shiniest.

Each painting from Mutiny in the Garden is packed with numerous historical and contemporary references, many of which deal with violence against people of color in America. Lien intentionally includes recent examples of resistance and protest too, like the toppling of the Confederate monument in Durham to scenes of the Dakota Access Pipeline protest. During the time it has taken me to write about my visit with Lien, the long protested Confederate monument on UNC’s campus known as Silent Sam was pulled down by anti-racists. The same painting depicting the toppling of the Confederate monument in Durham, which Lien completed earlier in 2018, also includes a representation of the Silent Sam statue with a black bag over its head. History painting indeed. 

Mutiny in the Garden, 2018, oil, silk, acrylic, antique 24k gold-leaf obi thread, 19th century American cotton on canvas, 72" x 96"

Additional Information:

Lien Truong’s solo exhibit at Galerie Quynh in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, will be on view from October 19 through November 24, 2018.

Studio Visit with Barbara Campbell Thomas

by Maria Britton

On my way to Barbara Campbell Thomas’s studio in Climax, NC, I make a pit stop at a gas station for coffee. This is one of the nicest gas stations I’ve been to recently. Nice as in cozy, and cozy as in there’s a bunch of pickles and nut butters right outside the women’s bathroom. As I’m browsing the pickles, I feel eyes on me. The eyes are cardboard and belong to a cut out of Dale Earnhardt Jr, thoughtfully placed in the corner, perhaps to deter shop lifters. I pay for my coffee and pickled okra and head down the road to Barbara’s.

After a brief introduction to her new kitten, Twig, Barbara and I walk to her backyard studio. It’s a converted garage with the interior painted white. The exposed rafters, also painted white, echo the convergence of painted lines and strips of fabric in Barbara’s paintings. A large table, centered in the studio, is covered with colorful piles of fabric, a pile of blue jeans outgrown by her children, painting supplies, and a collection of sketchbooks full of collages and drawings. Each sketchbook has a funky, embroidered, patchwork cover made by Barbara’s mother, Ellen Herman Campbell, who is an avid quilter. 

A few years ago, Ellen, who lives in Pennsylvania, visited Barbara and insisted on teaching her to quilt. Since then, Barbara has been incorporating blocks of quilted squares machine sewn into her paintings. I ask her if she likes to iron. Yes! But only for art. Neither of us enjoys ironing clothes. Ironing for art is a different, though. Neither of us look forward to sewing functional items outside of the studio. While there’s a deep admiration and satisfaction found in piecing together strips of fabric, strictly following patterns for clothing or quilt blocks brings back that weight of expectation and limitation. 

Barbara’s method of working consists of collage and loose painting organized into flattened, condensed space. Her paintings are full of accumulated stuff. In these recent paintings, it seems as though Barbara is zooming out. The quadrants of her recent paintings function like rooms, each with their own business going on. The perspective seems to be from above, looking down on a structure, a house or a specific room within a house. Thin stripes of paint and neatly cut strips of collaged fabric mostly rest horizontally or vertically and occasionally diagonally. Small circles of fabric and paint call to mind plates on a kitchen countertop and a stove’s burners. Her paintings seem to be about organizing, or loosely arranging color and line and space to make room for being. Barbara describes her own work as “aggregating the colloquial in service of illuminating the transcendent.” It comes as no surprise to learn that Barbara’s first painting class was with Helen O’Leary!

Barbara mixes her paints on a palette, building rich, bold colors as well as subtle variations of earthy tones. She works with both fluid and heavy-body acrylics, which cooperate nicely with fabrics. Fluid acrylics have been a relatively recent addition for me in my own work, so we praise the watercolorish qualities that can be achieved with fluids. She is working on some larger paintings now, and the shift in scale opens up the opportunity to include more variety in paint quality and methods of application. Her larger works have more expansive washes of paint with crisp outer edges that rival the sewn and pressed seams of inset quilt blocks. 

Barbara collects fabric from her family and thrift stores. Old sports jerseys from her kids are cut up and included in some recent paintings. Paintings that teeter on failure have the old scrap pile to look forward to as a place of rebirth. I too work with used fabrics and sewing, and we speak about the experience of learning a passed down skill from our mothers, who in turn most likely learned from their mothers. Several times throughout our visit, we ride a wave of satisfaction in together disrupting notions of patriarchy in painting--that which disregards or devalues what is perceived as feminine, weak, or just wrong in the eyes of the dude. Barbara schedules studio time around her many roles, including that of mother. When thinking about all the roles that artists who are also mothers who also work jobs outside of the studio, I wonder if the quest for balance in life and work is mythical, but maybe that balance can be found in Barbara’s work itself. She does make it all work by building rooms of her own, over and over. 

For additional information on Barbara please check out her website or Instagram.