San Francisco

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.


LTB: Could someone who is not indigenous make this work?
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.

Francesca Cozzone visited by Nick Naber

Francesca Cozzone and I met in our Intro to Figure Drawing back in 2007 at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  We became fast friends, taking many classes together until graduation in 2010. I went on to graduate school in New York, and Francesca took some time off, developing her studio practice. Francesca made the decision to pursue a Masters degree, and made the move from Chicago to San Francisco to attend school at the California College of Arts.

I am very happy to welcome her to The Coastal Post as a co-founder and the West Coast Editor. 

Studio Visit done on 3/24/14

Why did you choose to move to San Francisco?

My dad was in the marines and he was based at Camp Pendleton in Southern California. My dad always talked about how he could go a couple hours to the mountains to ski and a couple hours to the ocean and swim.  It always fascinated me to have this ability to experience all the seasons to your choosing. So when I started applying to graduate programs California was top of my list for locations.  

How do you choose color?

I stopped using color in my first year of undergrad in response to the use of color in the school environment. But I found my way back to color through the very same reasoning that I left it out of my work for a little while.  San Francisco, the city, not art world, has this great idea of color in the houses and the landscape. They use beautiful pastels and sometimes-crazy bright colors like cobalt blue, and then there is this weird layer of fog left on everything.  So you have this beautiful color that is kind of clouded by this fog dirt. I really enjoy this secretive dirty beauty. 

What is a typical day in the studio like for you?

My day starts out simply by list making and setting a tone for the day. Each day has a different vibe, so I like to pick an album (most recently, Of Monsters and Men) or movie (most recently Frozen and Tangled) I can listen to, to get me into my movements of making.  I always start with the largest project of the day, and I use breaks from the larger project to make smaller pieces and paintings.  

What items do you have in your studio space, what things do you need there to help you create?

MUSIC. Clean space. I clean out my studio once a week as I start a new week of projects. I need my bkr bottle of water. I have two, a pink one with an orange heart on it, and it says it would be really nice if you had your shit together.” My newest one is light pink and is a liter. I need to drink a ton of water, so Im not a mess. COLOR. Images of material inspirations. A microwave for making things. Concrete patch & Buckets. I have lots of chairs, stools, etc. because community is important to me and I love having my fellow studio mates to visit with.

What Materials do you use? 

I use cement; this material reminds me of growing up and working with my dad in the shop. I like to focus on materials; I like the relationship between cement and making cement. Cement was something that I used to make with my dad. I enjoy the feeling of coldness. The coldness is much like the forest it is comforting to me.  Coldness is not something that is a bad thing for me. 

I also introduce many found objects, usually 2x 4s, which are easy to obtain. They have a previous life and I dont need to make them.  I only have to repurpose them.

Another material I use regularly is soap. It is a uncontrollable material. I like that is organic in its appearance. The soap is used to help balance the structures I make. 

How do you choose color in the work?

I choose one color at a time; I make a piece and pick a color for it. Theres no recipe for the choices yet. Secondary colors are more evident then primary colors in my work. I am drawn to secondary colors. I pick the color that needs to represent the piece. I like the play of warm and cool colors and light and dark.  

I spend a lot of time in the Ink section at the art store and paint swatch section of Home Depot. I absorb the many choices of colors and bring back those ideas to my studio.

How is the work made, is it series based, or instinct based?

My work is made based on instinct rather than a series. I tend to move through things quickly. I find myself making new work weekly. This is the way that I connect ideas and certain themes in the work over time. 

For me it is about creating structures that are precarious. I also seek out materials that are somewhat precarious. It is a fight between having and not having a structure. 

How do you think the viewer sees, and interacts with your work?

I believe my materials and color choices are what invite the viewer into the space. I have been struggling with my relationship to my viewers and their point of entry. Im making precarious objects reminiscent to spaces and I make these spaces’ just out of reach.  Im asking a lot out of the viewer, and they respond to the pieces through my material and colors choices.  They want to touch the objects and know what the materials are.  

Can you tell me a little more about these stories?

The stories are about a paragraph long. They are based on my childhood experiences. I wrote one story about oatmeal. When I was a kid we pretended that oatmeal was fairy dust. Another story is about making brownies from a box. The feeling of the boxed brownie powder was different than the feeling of making homemade brownies. There is a correlation to the materials used in the objects and memories from my childhood. In many respects, I am making recipes.

Do you title your works? Do you see that as a way into the work?

I have been starting to explore them. I would like to have that be point of entry to the work. I’m not sure if they are successful yet or not. I think that titles could be the point of conversion between the written work and the physical pieces. Sometimes the work has the date of when a story took place. 

What is your concept?

I experience my memories through the materials of my childhood surroundings: fairy dust, cement to construct stability. While some materials signify a foundation, other materials are uncontrollable adding a force that is always just out of reach. I am searching to create structures that have a whimsical appearance and strong foundation when in reality the foundation is precarious. Im searching for my definition of a tangible home.

What artists are influencing you right now? 

I have been looking at Rachel Harrisons work to understand how to introduce the pedestal to my work. I want to play with how work looks on the floor or how to incorporate a pedestal into the work. Ive also been looking at Isa Genzken she makes weird sculptures and strange stories. She is an example of how the stories and the work go together but can also work independently. 

I do lots of research on Pinterest. I use the section for DIY and Craft looking for science experiments. I look for ways to make fancy things for cheap, and how I can turn that design process into my work.

What was the last exhibition you saw that has stuck with you?

Mitzi Petersons exhibition 3:43.  Ive been trying to look at more sculpture.  For me it is a new education in the way I work. Mitzi uses concrete too. She also uses silk, and I enjoy her idea of using solid materials with elegant materials. All of the work is very precarious; you dont know how they are standing or how they are held up.

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