Leah Thomason Bromberg

Carpenter, Photographer

Leah Thomason Bromberg visits the studio of Jillian Piccirilli


There is a sea of blue in Jillian Piccirilli’s studio from quiet grey-blues to deep indigos. Cyanotype after cyanotype on hardy paper covers every surface of her small studio in the loft of a larger studio in Oakland. I arrived at Jillian’s studio in the evening in her last days before she traveled to Denver for her solo show, Robinwood at Hinterland Art Space. I was very excited to be meeting her in the final stretch before her show—I’d be getting a special glimpse of the work right on the edge between “in progress” and being polished.

Jillian and I took many painting classes together during our undergraduate days at Cornell University, where she completed degrees in both art and anthropology. She was the recipient of the University’s Faculty Medal of Art and the Charles Goodwin Sands Memorial Medal of Art. Jillian Piccirilli continued to live in Ithaca, NY until the end of 2012 when she moved to Oakland. She has since shown her work in California, Colorado, New York, and Rhode Island.

Her recent work concentrates on the cyanotype process, but each piece is unique and uneditioned. This series of work has a gum bichromate layer on top of the cyanotype, which gives the image a warm tone. She meticulously paints a portion over the print, and her work lives at the intersection of photography, printmaking, and painting.

Robinwood is a series of painted prints that explores the history of her grandparents’ homestead in the rural outskirts of Cadillac, Michigan. This is where Mae Ella (Carlson) and Jim Baskum King lived their final sixty years. Until their deaths, it was what Jillian regarded as her “home,” a comforting constant. It was always a grand homecoming when Jillian, the only grandchild, would visit each summer. Whenever Jillian talks about her family, I can see her transport herself to that place and time as if she herself were her grandmother. She talks about what it was like “raising the girls”—the girls being her own mother and aunt. I also found myself getting lost in imagining these memories as she shared more about her work.

Mae flipped through the December 1946 publication of Better Homes & Gardens to find an article, “The House that Jack and His Friends Built,” about a couple that ordered blueprints from the magazine and built the house for themselves. Mae loved the house so much that she and Jim bought those very same blueprints for their Michigan home. Jim was a carpenter and, like the Jack in the article, built his own home. These very blueprints were crucial in the development of Robinwood.  “Blueprints” were originally cyanotypes, and the replication of the house and its space continues as the memories and experiences of Jillian’s family become replicated. Some pieces are singularly hanging pieces of paper, while others are mounted on wooden panels in a nod to carpentry itself. In her research, it feels very much like Jillian is carefully constructing her own memories as well as how viewers will see this space. She knows the specific history of each place, how it was built, and what family events occurred there.

Jillian’s meticulousness is equally apparent in her knowledge of family history in the photographs she collected. Mae was the photographer in the family with her very own home darkroom, and Jillian has interspersed these alongside other family photographs and photographs that she herself has taken. The images have a grainy feel to them (as can be expected of old photographs). Jillian carefully picks up each piece of paper and tells me about what her great aunt was baking—her mother’s family was Swedish. A photograph of her mother and aunt in college recalls Jim and Mae’s extreme worry as parents for their growing daughters. The image of the ground dug for the house’s foundation and another of her grandfather on a ladder remind me of the hopefulness of building and the coldness of stiff hands in the wind, fumbling over tools.

The road around the homestead became increasingly busier over the years, eventually becoming a highway. Jillian’s mother and aunt both departed from Michigan for more urban settings. Jillian sees her mother and aunt as more bookish, intellectually-minded individuals, working in university settings; while her grandparents were more heart and hands and deeply connected to their land. In the painted portions of some prints, Jillian highlights the physicality of baking and sewing; and in others, her mother’s and aunt’s heads are haloed with painted bonnets. Personally I have always seen being an artist as some sort of hybridization of craftsmanship, creativity, and intellectualism.

With Robinwood, Jillian echoes her grandparents’ handwork in a process with a similar DIY attitude. Better Homes & Gardens encourages its readers to make everything their own, and in adding these details to her images, Jillian takes her family’s space and makes it hers as well. I love how the cyanotype process feels so much more homemade. After mixing some chemicals, the sun itself creates the images. The drought in California actually changed the chemistry around Oakland, causing the hue of her work to shift dramatically and delaying some of her printing. These cyanotypes have the vestiges of Jillian’s faraway home in Oakland, attempting to revisit her family’s locus in Michigan.

Robinwood could easily lend itself to becoming a precious idyll, full of summertime stories and happy childhoods. However, there is an anxiety and starkness vibrating underneath. What happens now that the house has been sold? Where do these memories go now? As the family’s only grandchild, Jillian is the only one left to inherit these images and memories.

This is an especially appropriate moment to be making this work for Jillian as her grandmother passed away in 2012 and the house was sold a year later. The final image inRobinwood is the highway veering toward her grandparents’ mailbox and a sign announcing their name. The highway was once a two lane road that her family could walk on to town. Mae was pulling out of the driveway, and another bus struck her. She passed a few days later. The red details signal the end of the driveway, the end of the safety of home.

Jillian shared that this project is “emotionally solvent” for her. In some way, she feels this project lets her keep this place. There is a certain guilt as the only grandchild when the family lets go of a homestead built by their own patriarch.

Jillian patted the head of her Labrador, Abbey, talking about the trek to Denver for her show. Small tools, bits of paper, paint and brushes, and boxes of photographs surround her. In a few days as autumn sets in, she will hang her show and share with everyone this home in both its summer and wintertime.

Robinwood is on view at Hinterland Art Space (http://www.hinterlandartspace.com/) in Denver, CO from September 12 to October 3, 2014.

More of Jillian Piccirilli’s work can be seen here (http://www.jillianpiccirilli.com).

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats

Leah Thomason Bromberg visits the studio of Genevieve Hastings

The permeating June gloom confuses my sense of time. The foggy haze actually feels apropos. Commencement has come and gone; questions loom over my post-MFA life. How is everyone faring?

I escaped the fog for an afternoon, driving an hour south to sun-drenched San Jose where I met with artist Genevieve Hastings. Genevieve has just completed her MFA at San Francisco State University and I was excited to chat with someone new. In the midst of myriad projects, Genevieve generously sat down with me to chat. After our studio visit, we visited her installation at SubZER0 Art Festival in San Jose.

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Tell me a little bit about what you do.

I started actually as a photographer at San Jose State. I did my undergrad there. I went through the photography program.I took an installation class with Shannon Wright. I was photographing in abandoned spaces, doing ephemeral installations with string, and taking things from the space and rearranging them. I found that what I really was enjoying was the space itself.

I worked with this artist Phillip Ross to do this piece at San Jose State where we basically made a room. I wanted to make a space that was somehow reminiscent of these abandoned spaces. I dug up wood from a creek bed. It was all rotting, so it really smelled. The floorboards were creaky, and it was kind of a very dangerous sort of space. Then I put my photographs inside of there. I found that after that first installation there were a few things I started working with, and scent was one of them. Everybody commented on the smell of the wood, the smell of the musty suitcases and the old letters. It was very participatory, and so a few of these things that I kind of noticed in that first installation were things that I ended up working with later.

Then I did a piece that was collecting community members’ stories about road trips. Actually that piece is a pop up trailer at Classic Cars West right now in Oakland. Then I ended up doing a sister car for it. It’s an old ‘59 PV544 Volvo. It’s sea foam green. Sea foam green and rust are my two favorite colors.

I started working with the archive then. A lot of my stuff now is participatory, interactive. It’s all installation based. I do a lot of creating spaces to house whatever work it is. It’s a lot of multimedia. I do video. And then work with scent.

I saw at Root Division you had your telephone booth, but I saw on your website that you have a structure for the telephone booth.

That was my thesis show. The whole thing started from the T.S. Eliot poem [“Burial of the Dead” from The Waste Land]. That was the jumping off point. A lot of my participatory pieces end up culminating in this archive on my website, whether that’s an archive of letters or an archive of postcards or an archive of people’s stories. They kind of develop a life of their own. Often times I think it’s way better than the work I’m making. I had a professor who said that my work functioned as receiving stations.

A Heap of Broken Images (A Game of Telephone With Footnotes), 21’ x 6’ x 9’. Image by Finger Photography via genevievehastings.com. On view at   Paradise Ridge Sculpture Park   in Santa Rose through June 2015.

A Heap of Broken Images (A Game of Telephone With Footnotes), 21’ x 6’ x 9’. Image by Finger Photography via genevievehastings.com. On view at Paradise Ridge Sculpture Park in Santa Rose through June 2015.

How do you plan these structures?

All of my structures are built into panels, so I can haul them. I really think about the mobility of pieces.

The covered bridge is in Santa Rosa right now. They’re building this path, so it’s going to be a functioning covered bridge in that people get to actually walk through it.  It looks so much better out there than it did in the gallery.

A lot of these are structures within a building, so it seems like you like them better outside. Or do you like the structure within a structure?

You know, there’s this great quote. They came out with the book a year ago that’s The Wes Anderson Collection. At the beginning of it, there’s this incredible article that compares Wes Anderson to Nabokov and Joseph Cornell. I was like, my three favorite people! This is amazing! He says something about how for Joseph Cornell the box itself was a gesture. It demarcated a space. So, his whole world could be contained in that box. He was saying that was how Nabokov wrote his novels.

That sounds really interesting. That’s the thing about the inside of Nabokov’s space. He creates a space, and he gets to be completely in control.

He has his own sets of rules that he creates beforehand.

Signs and Symbols, titled after the Nabokov short story. A collaborative installation with  Steve Davis   at the   SubZER0 Art Festival   in San Jose

Signs and Symbols, titled after the Nabokov short story. A collaborative installation withSteve Davis at the SubZER0 Art Festival in San Jose

In one of your projects, you were talking about Proust. And then there’s that T.S. Eliot poem. Are you making a project and then finding literature? What does research look like for you?

I love research. I do love reading. One of the things I’m getting into is sensory perception. In my work I try to involve as many senses as I can. I think it makes for a more well-rounded experience of a space or creates a more believable space.

I read this book called Proust Was a Neuroscientist. [Jonah Lehrer] talks about all these different artists, thinkers and writers throughout history, and specifically about Proust and the Madeline cookie and how emotional scent triggers memory. He foresaw that was how our brain functions. Now neuroscientists have found that’s exactly what happens. Our olfactory senses—our sense of smell—is very powerful, because it’s the most directly connected to our hippocampus and goes through our limbic system, the emotion center of our brain.

I picked up The Wasteland, and I hadn’t read it in a long time. I’d had a really rough summer, and I was trying to get back into feeling inspired and figure out what I wanted to do for my thesis. It resonated with me on a level it never had before. I started reading the footnotes, and I started reading another book about the text. I was reading about T.S. Elliot’s life and some of the way he structured his poetry. I felt like I found a home there. His process of creating something felt more closely connected with my process than other visual artists.

I loved the footnotes. I love that things can be experienced as purely emotional or on a surface level; or you can delve into it and start uncovering things. The more you uncover, the more you realize there are connections between everything. That’s a lot to ask of viewers, and so I don’t ask that of viewers. I like this ability to access the things I do on a sensory level.

Signs and Symbols: a collaborative installation with   Steve Davis   at   SubZER0 Art Festival   in San Jose. Steve Davis created the figure above.

Signs and Symbols: a collaborative installation with Steve Davis at SubZER0 Art Festival in San Jose. Steve Davis created the figure above.


It seems your work is very much about the box we were talking about—that one place, but that one place gets to travel. You make them mobile and move them around and put them up in different places; but then there’s the footnotes or the poem that we can take with us. I like how you were talking about how there’s more for the viewer to uncover.

When I approached your work at the Murphy Cadogan Exhibition, I was like, All of these things are cool. I want to look at them. But I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to participate. I was wondering how you want people to participate or try to show them how. I had a friend who also does installations, and she made this booth. So I would just periodically go and stand in this thing for her to show other people that you could go in it.

It’s hard to direct people into a space. When people see the piece that’s up at Sub Zero, they don’t know they can go inside until somebody walks in. And once somebody goes in, there’s a line of people. If the line keeps going, which it does for a long time, then there’s people waiting to go in. But if people walk up and there’s nobody there, they don’t do anything unless someone says, “Go ahead! Walk inside!” A lot of time I’ll have some kind of sign like “Watch your head” or a welcome mat or something a bit cheesy that directs or invites people in. The other thing that I find is that most people don’t want to read things in a gallery—even a simple set of instructions like “pick up the phone.”

Sometimes people will participate, and sometimes not. I sometimes find depending on where I show, it’s totally crazy. San Luis Obispo—I had a show down there… I’ve never had so many people participate. I had stacks of letters this high. Some guy came in and put all these vintage photographs and put them all around the installation. Some other guy came back. He had a car in the 70’s or 60’s when that car first came out, and he brought in a picture of himself in the car and wrote on the back. My mind was blown.

I thought it was interesting that a lot of these archives are from other people. So, I was wondering if you put something of your own in there, or if this is about you collecting similar experiences to your own?

I think these archives are for me. When I started collecting people’s stories for the phone booth, I gave them the text, which can be experienced in any number of ways. All of the stories ended up falling into one of three categories pretty perfectly. There’s something very universal about people’s stories, and kind of finding that there’s really beautiful about listening to these stories and how connected you feel, or I feel at least.

Did you grow up in California?

I lived in the Midwest for a while (in Nebraska), but I was born in Walnut Creek. I lived up north near Sacramento in a small town. It was small when I was growing up called Lincoln. I moved to the Bay Area when I was in high school, so I’ve been in this area for a long time.

Do you think that has influenced what you’re doing? I’m interested in how people are connected to their places.

I think aesthetically I have this love for all things Victorian. The structure of the covered bridge things looks very much like an old barn. There’s this agricultural architecture that I keep coming back to. My aesthetic is rooted in a place. I traveled a lot in my twenties. I spent 6 months in Southeast Asia, and I lived in Spain for a little while. I feel like the way I engage with people’s stories is more related to that and related to the fact that I moved a lot. We moved a lot—every year, twice a year, three times a year. I switched a lot of schools, and so the way I engage with people, get to know people, has somehow translated into how I work now. I was always into recording stories of people or them telling some story when I traveled. I have a lot of sound clips from all over. They’re all obsolete now as these big cassettes or like the mini disc things.

Yeah, those were awesome.

I have tons of stuff like that, and I need to digitize it before it’s lost forever. I like getting obsessed with something and then researching it.

And getting to do a project on it…

I think that’s the only reason I’m an artist.

What’s it like being out of MFA now? How are you feeling?

People keep asking that. I don’t know.

I don’t know either…

It’s so early, right?

It’s been like two weeks or whatever. I’m so glad we got to chat.

I love conversations.


Be sure to check out Genevieve Hastings’ installation, Whispers to Marijke, at Paradise Ridge Sculpture Park in Santa Rose through June 2015.

Find more work, footnotes, and archives at genevievehastings.com.