Editor’s Note: a reception is scheduled at the gallery from 6-8pm Friday October 14.
On September 7th, I visited Pam Rogers her studio at the Arlington Arts Center Studios to talk about her work as she prepared to participate as a featured artist in Studio H’s two concurrent openings at the H Street Festival, September 17th, 2011. Studio H is located at 408 H ST NE. The transcript of our conversation has been edited for concision and clarity.
WC: I made some sketchy notes to refer to in asking you some questions. I want to talk about how you got to where you are today and then to talk a little bit about what’s going into the show. Since we are not in the gallery already, I cannot say, oh, this is this piece, and so on.
PR: A lot of that work isn’t here.
WC: Has the show been mounted already?
PR: No. I have some of the pieces here.
WC: When are you going to get the mounting done?
PR: I’m supposed to call Phil [Hutinet] after I talk to you and he’s going to tell me (laughing). I am guessing next week. I just picked up the last of everything from the framers.
WC: And sculpture? You said you are going to do a sculpture, as well.
PR: I am going to do a large—probably four feet long, maybe two and a half feet in diameter—piece. [Editor's note: see above]
WC: Is it something that would be familiar to us, if we know your sculpture work, something bound with natural fibers, leaves, plants?]
PR: Yes. And I am going to do five small sculptures.
WC: I suppose the larger work would be suspended from the rafters?
WC: When you are suspending a work, do you use nylon string or a natural material?
PR: Natural material.
WC: It has got to be from nature?
PR: Yes. I use hemp a lot, or jute, something that will be easy to hang. Sometimes I use cotton. My favorite is clothesline.
WC: Clothesline? That’s wonderful. I wouldn’t have thought of it.
PR: It is hard to find because everybody uses nylon now.
WC: One of the first things that fascinated me as I explored your website was the cyanotypes. Give me a little bit of history on how far back that goes with you. When were you first turned on by the idea of using cyanotype in your work? Where do you think you might be going?
PR: I will continue to use it. When I first started it was very simple. But it is evolving; it is becoming more complex because I keep adding more to it. It started not so much as an alternative to the photographic process—but as a way to show something in negative space. Negative space has always been really important in my work. I think you can tell. It guides me in how I approach work, so I find materials that will let me do that—a process. That was when I realized that I am definitely a process-based, materials-influenced artist. That drives my whole thing. I remembered as a kid doing the prints from the sun on paper and that is how I started. At that time, I was taking whole bound bundles and I would actually lay them down. I lay the bundle down and printed it. But it was that deep blue and I wanted more than that. I needed more. I found ways to process the paper with other household-based chemicals, like borax, baking soda and hydrogen peroxide. I started dying the paper. Then I went through several residencies in different parts of the country. The sun, when it is in a different location, really prints differently. I got excited. This process not only documents the bundle, it documents where I am. –
WC: You can really see the difference. It is like different earths.
PR: I went even further and I kept pushing. I would cast shadows and draw them. Then I have done layers and layers and layers. This is what I am evolving and going towards. In the exhibition, there are two new pictures that show how very involved and layered the process has become.
WC: Let’s see if I can take a picture and make it work.
PR: So, that is where cyanotype was born. Now I am fascinated by it. : It is a photographic process but I need to know it from the page’s perspective. I want to go all over the place. I wonder, what if I do this in Michigan versus Atlanta?
WC: You were in Northern Georgia at the Hambidge Center. What is the name of this work?
PR: “Back Porch Myth.” I just got accepted to another residency which I am very excited about. I am going to Weir Farm in Connecticut [http://www.nps.gov/wefa/supportyourpark/artist-in-residence-program.htm]. Weir Farm is a historic trust that is run by the National Park Service in Wilton, Connecticut. You stay in an Eighteenth Century cottage and you have a studio. You have the historic gardens and you get to use all of the property. I am going to go there and do cyanotype and all sorts of other stuff there. I really wanted to get into this one. They only take twelve artists a year.
WC: How long is the residency?
PR: One month.
WC: When are you going to do that?
PR: April, 2012.
WC: That is a wonderful time of year.
PR: I know. I am so excited because I make my pigments and a lot of my inks. [IMG 0171.jpg]
WC: And you do try to source your pigments locally, as much as possible?
PR: I try to. I do collect and bring soil back with me. Like here, some of this is old. This is North Georgia. This is Lake Forest out of Chicago. I was at a residency there. This is Lansing, Michigan, where I was for another residency. I am running low! I need to go back. I worked with a wonderful artist here named Patterson Clark who works with the Washington Post. We made some ink. This is ivy bark. That’s local. Here is Ivy Leaf. Patterson was an incredible artist to work with and he taught me a lot.
WC: Do you think that there is such a thing as “terroir,” in art, the concept of the earth being a part of the work, just like in wine?
PR: I think there is. My concept of my work is that we all have identity, we identify with place. Place evokes memories that help to identify our selves. There are multiple layers. On an individual level, mine started out with thinking about some difficult personal relationships I was struggling through and how they were related to a certain place. Also, there is the smell of earth as there is the smell of wine. When I do the bound sculptures, I always present them as fresh as possible because the smell is important to me. It evokes something. I think art does have a sense of the earth in it. Mine certainly does. I hope people can relate to it on a personal level but also that it can be seen in a broader context. It has to do with where people are from. It has to do with immigration. It has to do with who we are as people and cultures and how we evolve. I guess the answer is yes.
WC: Did the sense of place occur to you as you were learning art? Did certain artists, or certain schools of art touch you? There was a time when artists were drawn into actually experiencing nature directly. The land was their inspiration. Did that occur to you?
PR: It did occur to me. My undergraduate degree is in art history. I taught art history for a quite while and I still love it. There are little elements of it in all my work. My sense of place, though, went back in a different way. I always was fascinated with Cezanne and how he painted Mont Sainte-Victoire over and over. More than that, my sense goes back to Egypt, Rome and Greece, and the use of clay. Right now, I am doing project, illustrating for the Smithsonian. You can tell different clays from the different pots from the different places. I have always been fascinated that they identify objects of art with place by the material. The Egyptians used precious stones. They ground them up and used them in their wall paintings. There has been this thread throughout history that you can identify something through the material. I think I approach it more that way, rather than from a visual need , as with something like the Hudson River School. I was in Turkey and Greece, and in the pottery there, they still grind up different minerals to get the slip colors. I was thinking how that identifies it right back to place. I am fascinated with marble. You can tell from a statue where the marble was from. Is it from Northern Italy? My oldest daughter went to school in Middlebury, Vermont, and they have the big marble quarries up there. You can tell Vermont marble. I have always loved geography, anyway, so there is a sense of that in my work, too.
WC: We’ve talked about artists. Are there any poets that you like? Some people might imagine that there are certain poets who are closer to the inspirations that you have.
PR: Some people might not consider him a poet but most of these works were born under the influence of Bob Dylan.
WC: Do you listen to Bob Dylan while you are working?
PR: Yes, a lot. Actually, it is the narrative. These pictures become stories. I have a real affinity for that narrative, having been born and raised in Boulder, Colorado. People imagine that Allen Ginsberg would feature prominently. I was aware of all of that. It was very much a part of me becoming who I am. I lived in a tipi. I did the whole thing. I lived outside Steamboat Springs during that period. I like narrative and yet I don’t think of narrative in a traditional sense.
WC: You have been putting story into the work as you’ve done the work. Do they play back the same way you put them in?
PR: They do to me. I mean, I see the story. These, I mean, I can tell you that they are becoming much more story driven..
WC: Now, what is the name of that piece? Is it on the website or is this a newer piece?
PR: It is a newer piece.
WC: Tell me the story.
PR: This one had to do with where I felt my life was going. I was being uprooted, once again. I believe that it is important to bloom where you were planted. You have got to want to remake yourself and move again and then you have to remake yourself. There is a little piece of sort of the beginning of what I thought I was starting to remake me. This is one of the little objects I was illustrating at the Smithsonian. This is my attempt to try and figure out how I am going to remake myself in a city like Washington, DC.
WC: Was that centering?
PR: Yes. The bound parts are still parts of me. I am still really bound up sometimes, feeling restricted.
There is a Louise Bourgeois spider in there.
WC: We must get a picture of that.
PR: There is so much to see in every picture.
WC: Did the idea of binding come directly from your need to relate– or somehow incorporate into your work– the experiences you went through because of serious injury?
PR: My accident certainly made me feel totally restricted, in a body cast, not able to move. I was there for seven months, not able to do anything. It changed me dramatically in just thinking where I wanted to go with my life. I had thought I wanted to be an anthropologist. I think some of it comes from being a mother. To calm a baby down, they always say you should bind the baby. There is something about being restricted that is very comforting. But then I related it to myself. When you are restricted you don’t have to take risks. That is a double-edged sword. Do I make excuses for being restricted? Then it goes into a broader thing, women being restricted from doing things maybe that they want to do. If you are in this certain situation as a mother, maybe you are making excuses, oh, I can’t do that! But are these restrictions because you do not want to take risks? You have to let go of that. It’s why some of the bindings are starting to come undone. Some of the bindings look like they are nests. It is all those different things together. This binding thing has always fascinated me. I love to draw, so (laughing) it’s as if like I have to draw them. A lot of times, you will see pins in my work. They are not necessarily pricking pins. They are a reference back to my great-grandmother who was a very interesting woman, and certainly had a narrative of her own. She was quite a seamstress and I did a lot of sewing. Also, the stitching in my work is related to that. So, a lot of the pins are related, and the buttons are related to that, too. You will see buttons in my work a lot. And little bits of animal parts. There are bones, human bones and animal bones. Here is a partial bird’s leg, but maybe not. You are not really sure. I like to be ambiguous, making people go back and forth, is it something we know, or is it not? Do I recognize this? There is also the element of decay and rejuvenation, of creating new things that don’t exist. I love plants as they decay. I find that fascinating.
WC: You must like Sally Mann’s photography.
WC: Is there an artist that we might not imagine that you draw inspiration from, who would not come to mind for any logical reason because of your own work?
PR: I don’t know if you would think of it, but Hieronymus Bosch actually does.
WC: It is not one I would have thought of but now it is very easy to understand.
WC: Of course.
PR: I am trying to think of somebody unexpected. I think Hieronymus Bosch is probably the one that nobody would think about but I do look at his work a lot and I am fascinated with it. I might also mention both Amy Cutler and Julie Heffernan are huge influences- Amy for her beautiful graphic work and narrative and Julie for her layered, richly developed personal narrative. It was good for me to have to think about that question and push myself to really think about why these are artists that I gravitate to.
WC: Tell me a little bit more about your experience at Hambidge.
PR: Oh, it was a great residency. That was one of the first residencies that I did. I found that I think the greatest thing about a residency is that you really—it sounds so cliché—but you can really just be an artist. You don’t have to do anything else, be anything else. You can totally immerse yourself. It was the first time that I found that I could get up in the night and work and sleep whenever I wanted. It changed the rhythm of the way I was living and that change in rhythm started to change the work. I came away thinking that I didn’t get much done but when I brought it all back to the studio, I had accomplished a huge body of work. It wasn’t finished but I had started a whole different direction. By breaking that rhythm I was able to break through things that were keeping me from moving forward. I experimented a lot. I got my MFA later in my life and had not had a lot of time to do that. It was a pivotal residency for me. I met people there who I am still in touch with. I also got my first taste of the bizarre personalities you encounter at residencies sometimes. They were great people, but there were some really strange, kooky things that I learned.
WC: Why did you want an MFA?
PR: Validation, I wanted validation from myself, to prove that I could do this, and validation, basically because, you get viewed so differently when you have an MFA, at least where I was coming, from an academia. I thought I would teach. I did teach right after I got my MFA for a while but since I moved to DC I have not been teaching. I think I’m going to go talk to George Mason, so I don’t know how that will effect me wanting to teach more..
WC: Is teaching something you would want to do again?
PR: I may. I would want to teach graduate or undergraduate level. I don’t think I could go back to teach at the primary or secondary level. I enjoyed teaching. I learned a lot about myself teaching and about my own work. I love looking at other people’s work. I juried a show for the first time this week and that was, in a way, like going back to teaching. I’ve done a lot of curating and that, too, has been enjoyable. I have another show that I’m going to jury later in October. I have been so focused on doing this upcoming show. I’ve been in the studio a lot. I keep remembering and saying to myself all the time, I have got to get out and look at more work because it makes me a better artist. I think that is probably the greatest thing I see in teaching. You have a chance to look at such a diversity of work.
WC: Were there any teachers themselves, either during your undergrad or graduate work, that you found were pivotal to your development or were they there in the background molding you less obviously or less dramatically?
PR: During my undergraduate work, there were several. Probably the biggest influence was Patricia Berman. She opened up a great approach to looking at modern art and contemporary art—how to look at it carefully. It made a huge difference in how I felt. Then I studied with Professor Quin-min Meng. He taught me my love of negative space but he also taught me patience. We would have something like a hundred pieces to do for homework in a week and then only five would be okay! He said, go back and start again. Do it again. Do it again. There was repetition until you felt it in your hand and in every other way. I had never had anyone who was quite that relentless with me. It was not warm and fuzzy. He was saying, you can do this, but you have to work and work. Art is actually hard work. In graduate school, I had two professors who I felt played good cop, bad cop, Tom Francis and Michael Brown. You would go to one crit and it would be like a bizarre movie where you felt like, I’m going to be in this crit for seven hours. All they do is make you cry. You think, I’m never going to work again. It was just brutal to cause everybody to get riled up and gang up on you and just tear everything you did apart. And then the other one would come in and just be so supportive and so kind, saying, oh, this is great, and nurturing you. You would go from one to the other, back and forth. But I would not have survived if I had not had both. They were both very important.
WC: It is funny when I hear artists say something general like, oh, all my crits were good, or they were all equally important, I really valued every crit that I got. I’m thinking, boy, you must be really perfect!
PR: In retrospect, I can look back and see that they were pushing me to start having some confidence in myself and my work, to be able to stand up and say, okay, I don’t care if the world hates what I do, I’m going to do it anyway. I did need somebody at times to say, you’re not getting your point across, this is really bad. They were were absolutely right, even though it killed me. Those things stick with you. You think, I need to keep pushing. All the time, I still ask, is this relevant? I’ll walk in here and say, this is insane. This looks like the cabinet of curiosities in here. What is wrong with you, Pam?
WC: Tell me about how you connected with Phil Hutinet and how you developed this show at Studio H.
PR: I had just moved to DC and decided to do Art-O-Matic. It was their big anniversary. I had never heard of it. I didn’t know anything about it. But I thought, you’ve got to do something, Pam, or you are going to go nuts. First of all, I didn’t know anyone in DC and felt myself just plopped here and had to figure this out. I left a very supportive, thriving practice; I still had a lot of shows. In fact, for a year after I moved here, I still was traveling back to Atlanta quite a bit and showing down there. I think it was Geoff Ault who had seen my work at Art-O-Matic. They contacted me. That was when they had City Gallery. They asked me to be one of the member artists. I was very flattered. I joined and before I had a chance to show my work there, it didn’t exist anymore. I had already had a show at the Hillyer Space. It was a really important show for me and I came out of that with a lot of direction in how I wanted to continue to develop my practice. It was the first event where I sold in DC. With City Gallery gone, Phil said, how about Studio H? I’ll do a show for you. I was thrilled and flattered. I love the space. And that is how it happened. But I wanted to make sure that the work I am doing shows more of the direction I’ve been going. Some serious drawing work started coming out of the most recent residencies in Chicago and then in Wyoming. I took the cyanotypes that I have for this show a set further, even. I keep trying to push. I see more and more influence from the project I’ve been working on now at the Smithsonian for almost two years. It really is starting to affect my work. And I’m saying, hmmm. Things are becoming even more intense and detailed and even more narrative and more involved. I wanted a lot of that to come through so I’ve got a lot of new work which I am excited about. I have never showed it before. It is always so exciting, you know, remembering to breathe, the first time you show a new piece. What are people going to think?
WC: What was it about the experience in Wyoming that made you decide to invest in that extra part of the drawing?
PR: I was inspired by the fact that there was no vegetation.
WC: You mean, because it was more arid?
PR: It is much more arid and I was out on the Front Range up against the Big Horn Mountains. It was a time of year when nothing had bloomed yet. Where I usually get that inspiration from green and plants and leaves and stuff, this was a scene where that was not there. I kept seeing incredible line on the prairie grasses, the rocks. I realized that line is probably one of the driving forces in my composition. I found that, too, when I was jurying the show, I realized, oh, my gosh, it is line that you are looking at in everything. I love the essence of line. I thought, well, if you love it, why haven’t you pushed it further in your work. I can show you some of that. It was line that I was doing at the Smithsonian. [Brings over an unwrapped picture] I did a series of drawings.
WC: Oh, I love this picture. I’ve seen this on the website.
PR: It’s called “Meadow Mutations.” This is on the paper that I made.
I have a series of four of them. I started sitting there and watching. It was like these things started to grow out of the prairie. And I thought, oh, my gosh! There might have been a little bit of wine that caused some of that, I don’t’ know.
This is paper that is made from eleven invasive plants.
WC: Tell me more about the papers.
PR: It is just that they are made from weeds here. This one is made from invasive English Ivy. This one that is a little rougher is the one that’s made from the eleven invasive species. I just like the idea that you are creating this kind of plant thing. I really started doing it here with Patterson Clark. He has all of the equipment needed to do it and had been making paper with invasive plants. He invited me to come and join him. He is a master and I learned a lot, so I thought, why not take the use of plant material one step further? Can I make this totally out of made material for my work?
WC: Have you worked with mulberry.
PR: I have done mulberry once. This is a mulberry paper, and so is this one. They are really hard to work with but I sew them and work with them that way. I want to try linen paper. That’s my next goal. For two of the pieces for the show at Studio H, I have reverted back to traditional medium. I am doing them on cotton canvas. There are two pieces. I have painted with oil on linen but I don’t paint with acrylic.
This is synthetic. IThis isis fiberglass paper. It is called SynSkin. It is an industrial material. It is strange how it’s a kind of glass.
WC: (Eyes traveling along the studio wall.) Are these all studies? What’s going on here?
PR: I did an entire wall of these. It’s all pen and ink.
WC: So, this is just pen and ink on board?
PR: Yes, they’re on Claybord. I did a whole wall of them and I just put some of them back up here. I am starting to get filled up. I have too much work in the studio. I am going to have to build something in here to store.
Over here, I have just started a new method: stretching paper. I am always trying to find a new way.
WC: Stretched? Oh, I see. It has been stretched over a frame.
PR: I left the canvas on the frame and stretched the paper over it. Part of the reason I did that was for stability. It’s working out great.
WC: It is so smooth.
PR: Yeah, isn’t that cool? I didn’t know whether it would do that. So, I am experimenting with that. Over here, these are very obvious. This is handmade paper but it is cotton paper and it’s got the very heavy deckle edge. Almost an Albrecht Duhrer drawing in this one, he’s another one of my favorites. I did stone lithography for a while. I might enjoy having a press and stone to work with again someday.
WC: I hope your experiences from the show will be rewarding as much for the exposure and press. How did you learn about the business of art? MFA programs don’t always tell you much There are more classes now than there used to be. Business and ethics should be a part of an art education.
PR: I think ethics is a huge issue. I worked as an assistant to a fabulous artist, curator and mentor who taught me a lot> Stuart Keeler [http://www.stuartkeeler.com/], , an amazing artist now based in Toronto, taught me about being a professional. He also taught me that you have to budget your time. You have to spend one or two mornings a week—or days a week on the business. It takes a lot of time to put together submissions, applications and you have to do a lot of PR yourself. I struggle with that. It is not in my nature to want to go out and publicize myself.
WC: We were talking a little earlier about what an MFA can do for you. I think Washington can do the same thing. I think that, because it is a city full of educated, articulate people, and where the population is more heavily weighted to the widely read and traveled, it obliges the artist to be more articulate in social life about the work that he or she does, in just the average conversation. I think that is important.
PR: It is, and I love when I see such smart artwork being done, where I can say, yeah, that’s it, that’s what we want to see.
WC: That is true. I am happy about that and I am happy you are here. I will see you at the opening of the show!