Banff

Dreams of Aggressive Vitality

Leah Thomason Bromberg visits Gabe Hill's Studio

It’s a sunny November afternoon, and I am meeting Gabrielle Hill in a bunker. 

Well, in a way—walking through California College of the Arts’ MFA studios in San Francisco can feel that way with its windy, concrete courtyards and industrial aesthetic. There is even a perpetual grey that seems to hover over the studios. After making my way through the fog, I am delighted to see Gabe’s studio, number 32, tucked into the corner of Hoopertown. The work in her studio is the beginnings of her own imagined bunker: one where her protagonist is holed away from the end of the world.

Gabe came to the Bay Area from Vancouver and is Metis and Cree. I met Gabe when we were both in Banff for In Kind: Negotiations exactly a year ago. I had just finished my own MFA at CCA the spring before, and she was in the process of applying to CCA herself. Seeing her studio made me thankful for a friend and fellow artist (the best sort of combination) who has experienced the same landscapes (or industrial MFA bunkers) as I have.

My own studio has always been a sort of bunker: a place to hide away and get lost in my mind. Gabe’s studio likewise was filled with piles and experiments and ideas. Nearing the end of her first semester, her work is beginning to coalesce after months of questions. Car tires, a quilt, papers with notes, and house paint surround pieces in their infancy. She works in a variety of media, but today it seems her work leans toward sculpture. 

LTB:  What's the project you're working on here?

A yellow piece of legal paper in Gabe’s studio shows her own emphasis given to Frantz Fanon’s words:

The first thing the colonial subject learns is to remain in place and not overstep [her] limits. Hence the dreams of the colonial subject are muscular dreams, dreams of action, dreams of aggressive vitality. I dream I am jumping, swimming, running, and climbing. I dream I burst out laughing, I am leaping across a river and chased by a pack of cars that never catches up with me. During colonization the aboriginal subject frees [herself] night after night between nine in the evening and six in the morning.

— Wretched of the Earth, page 15

Gabe is in the midst of a larger installation piece titled Muscular Dreams from this excerpt. There are obviously still the questions of how the piece will turn out, but she is literally scraping away bit by bit at its creation as she carves, paints, and wires each component.

Gabe shares that she’s been thinking a lot about Jimmie Durham when he talks about “unknowable futures.” As an indigenous individual, he’s found that so much of his tradition has been lost, and is in many ways inaccessible. Without knowing the past, its projection into the future is equally unknowable, leaving a zone for questions and imagination. What could be more unknowable and questionable than this bunker amidst a sort of apocalypse?

In her dreams, Gabe is often saving the world, waking to find herself feeling accomplished and victorious. Here I wholeheartedly relate: in my dreams I fight for my voice declaring danger to be heard and then physically rescue my loved ones (to then wake, feeling exhausted and anxious). I love the agency that I access in these dreams—not only over myself but over the entire landscape. It seems to me that Gabe is creating that landscape with her installation. I found myself getting lost in the space and in the imagined world she described.

GabeHill_lightwiring

LTB: Could someone who is not indigenous make this work?
GH:
I think so! I think lots of people probably have these muscular dreams: colonized people and people just living under a system that feels immobilizing. This is just my own expression of this.

She really hopes to create a fantastical and immersive space. Books by Ursula Le Guin and Octavia Butler sit around in her studio. Science fiction has long been a space where the politics of their authors get worked out, yet another space for agency and experimentation.

LTB: How am I supposed to orient myself toward this work, or find my way into it?

As a painter, sculpture has always been sort of mystical, and with three-dimensions I often get overwhelmed; but then Gabe pulled out a Jessica Stockholder book. I literally gasped because it gave me a foothold into sculpture. Jessica Stockholder’s work is like a painting you can physically enter. Wires and tubes are like paint strokes against a background—and Gabe also sees them as bunkers.

Over the semester, Gabe has planned this extensive project. She has small goals for herself everyday. She's even decided on a palette. “My colors are usually all over the place,” she shares, and with this piece she is keeping to a palette of pink, blue, black, and white.

LTB: What is a non-negotiable for you in making work?
GH: Working with my hands.

In a time of digital everything, Gabe wants to keep that physical connection to her work. In one intervention, she braided the grass of an entire hillside, working slowly and methodically, chatting with the camera person who filmed part of her project. That sort of down-to-earth tone in her voice and in her work is apparent throughout her studio  and in this new project.

One area has tube lights painted an ultramarine on one side, while the other shines down on the tiny tobacco plants she is trying to grow in her studio. She started them in her apartment in sunnier Oakland, but they seem to be struggling in the studio despite her best efforts to research what they need. The pure light is strong, and I easily lose myself in it; and for once those orange electrical cords are beautifully accenting the lights they power. After learning to wire the lights herself, Gabe is building a light box for the tobacco, a plant with traditional and everyday uses.

In the back a warm-toned, wooden desk sits in front of a mauve wall. A can of paint and a roller are off to the side. Gabe is carving words and stars and figures into the wall and down onto the desk. The golden under layers of the plywood emerge, reminding me of the colors in my grandmother’s home. Eventually she will ink blue over the wall and pull linotype-esque prints from it. Eventually the blue will cover the carved stars as a subtle nod toward Ghost Dancers, whose dance also connected physicality with hopes for the future.

I left Gabe to carve away at her desk and her wall, chipping away to make physical her own imaginings.

Explorer is a funny word for colonial imperialist

Leah Thomason Bromberg visits Whess Harman’s Banff studio

Contributor’s note: “In Kind” Negotiations was a residency for indigenous artists that I attended at the Banff Centre. See all three studio visit conversations here.

I met Whess in one of those terrifying circles of new people, where you tell everyone your name and something about yourself. I remember looking around the room and wondering what everyone was like and if we’d all be friends. I quickly learned that Whess lives in Prince George, British Columbia and has an “aggressively affectionate” cat. This November and December, we were both at the Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada as part of the In Kind Negotiations residency, a six week residency for indigenous artists.

The final night of our residency—before buses and planes would take us all away—Whess was frantically finishing up a book project in the printmaking studio. Whess graciously chatted with me while printing away at an endless stack of pages. Magenta and black slowly built themselves up on a sturdy surface. I had never even seen a silkscreen demonstration, so I was excited to witness printmaking wizardry firsthand.

Whess took on an incredibly ambitious project for their time in Banff: ten editions of a sixteen-page accordion book. As there is no access to printing facilities in Prince George, Whess wanted to take full advantage of the beautiful facilities Banff offers. The book includes an original text along with a variety of personal and found imagery.

LTB: Do you have an ideal audience for your work?

WH: Probably indigenous people worldwide.

Being part of an indigenous residency meant there was a shared understanding of the history and effects of colonialism—others at the residency (myself included) felt relief at not having to explain terrible histories and political sphere around our work. Whess’ text-based work explicitly references indigenous politics with singular statements like “Explorer is a funny word for colonial imperialist” (4th grade history class) and “Don’t call me an Indian if you’re not an N.D.N.” (Defining principles)—statements that are somewhat of a slap in the face.

4th grade history class , 2014. Image via whessharman.tumblr.com

4th grade history class, 2014. Image via whessharman.tumblr.com

Defining principles , 2014. Image via whessharman.tumblr.com

Defining principles, 2014. Image via whessharman.tumblr.com

LTB:  And is there anything that are you tired of people asking you about your work?

WH: People have asked, ‘Can you read it for me?’ and ‘Do you think this puts you in a position of power?’

There is a certain resistance to accessibility in the font they had created: the viewer has to work through the letters to piece together these statements. Whess’ work challenges, refusing to be quickly consumed visually. For me, there’s something political in that. Western culture loves to feed upon indigenous tropes in the visual arts, never having to look further than the signifiers they seek out.

There is also a certain privilege and limited access in the finite character of printing editions. I found myself wanting to spend more time with Whess’ work, and so I was excited to hear that Whess plans to make the book available as a PDF online. I’ll be able to do some more decoding of sassy comments. I feel a certain glee in reading them: the statements feel as though I’m eavesdropping over someone’s shoulder.

Last minute silkscreening: Whess worked while we chatted. This process enchants me.

Last minute silkscreening: Whess worked while we chatted. This process enchants me.

LTB: You’re working with a traditional and established media with a long history, but one that’s not necessarily part of your family or community’s traditions. What’s that like?

WH: I used to push against formline, but now I would say that I’m coming back to it as a point of reference rather than specializing in it—approaching it as an amateur and accepting it as an influence.

During the BFA program at Emily Carr in Vancouver, Whess discovered the highly technical world of printmaking. Whess is from the Witat (or Carrier) Nation that is indigenous to northern British Columbia, where many artists in the area work traditionally. As my family is also unfamiliar with art school and its culture, I always wonder what someone’s immediate family thinks of the work an artist is making—especially when it comes from a deeply personal place.

Art-making became a place for Whess to manifest big ideas that felt difficult to verbalize. It becomes exhausting to constantly explain the repercussions of colonialism in your community; and Whess’ work becomes a form of text-based political engagements. The prints feel like the retorts we only come up with after the bully has left. These political and visual references to indigeneity also offer access points where Whess’ family can appreciate the work.

Whess developed the font from formline, the traditional artwork found in the Pacific Northwest. Traditional formline is highly encoded and has a meticulous flow. Whess’ foundation in illustration definitely emerges in the font, where language as contemporary text merges with a traditional, visual language. Whess’ words become a swirling story.

Silkscreened page from Whess’ project at Banff

Silkscreened page from Whess’ project at Banff

LTB: I read a lot of fiction that inserts itself into my practice. In X-marks, Scott Richard Lyons talks about Mr. Spoke and Judy Blume not being indigenous, but that they have become part of his interior landscape. Do you see a connection between fiction and your own work?

WH: There’s definitely a lot of sci fi here in my rambling. There’s Tesla’s death ray, lost sharks are sentient, and me as the ‘interstellar space babe.’

Whess began to work this way after seeing Sunny Assu’s work. Beat Nation also changed how they thought about formline. There Whess found a wide range of highly detailed work that was smart and engaged with indigenous communities. The influence of hip hop on indigenous communities and artwork felt to them like a nod to Afrofuturism. Similarly, Whess’ writing touches upon a blend of eclectic subjects like sci-fi, an identity as a non-binary transgender individual, and mental health.

Whess’ studio in Banff

Whess’ studio in Banff

Politics blend with imaginary blend with personal. Whess hopes that their work can begin conversations about indigenous politics and struggles with mental health. To Whess, art-making is an act of self-care. I love that you can find Whess’ work on Tumblr, which in its very nature mixes everything together. There, Whess has found an incredibly supportive queer community. Taking control of situations, both politically and personally, can be empowering. I find the imaginary space where art happens to be a political challenge to Western cultural expectations.

Whess had taken a seat next to their screen by the end of our conversation. Fortunately, upon checking the time, Whess said everything was right on schedule to finish the book. I was relieved that I had not stolen valuable time from such a beautiful project. I said goodbye to my new friend in the midst of inks, myriad papers, and magical tools.

 

See more of Whess Harman’s work at whessharman.tumblr.com.

Studio wall thoughts (with thanks to Sherman Alexie)

Studio wall thoughts (with thanks to Sherman Alexie)

Text planned out on transparency

Text planned out on transparency

Prints drying

Prints drying

Silkscreened page from Whess’ project at the Banff Centre

Silkscreened page from Whess’ project at the Banff Centre