A conversation with artist Paula Wilson. Following the opening of her solo show, FLOORED, at Williamson | Knight in Northwest Portland.
We discussed her background and influences in making art, MoMAZoZo, the residency she co-runs in Carrizozo, New Mexico, and the histories that inspire her.
Ashley Gifford: What's your background in art and how did art making first find its way into your life?
Paula Wilson: I was fortunate to be exposed to art viewing and art making early. My mom would take me to The Art Institute of Chicago where I was obsessed with the impressionist paintings. My mom would also lay out these giant rolls of paper for my brother and I to paint on. So I grew up making and being exposed to art. My mom was also a docent at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, I would meet her there after school.
I'm dyslexic-and so art appeared to me as an incredible way to communicate without the trappings and confounds of language. It was sort of this natural pathway for me, and it felt pretty effortless. It’s been a continuous process from childhood until now.
That sounds like a really fun activity to do growing up; was it just you painting on those large pieces of paper in your house?
It was my brother and I. He would zero in and do these superhero drawings; he would sit down and focus on one area. I would paint these giant flowers.
Do you think that activity in one way or another has influenced how you’re working on such a large scale, particularly in this show FLOORED?
That’s what I was thinking about when you asked that question—I was thinking back to those early roots. It’s hard to connect the dots explicitly but I think there’s definitely a connection there. And then in school, art making was just one of those things I was good at. I remember when I was in elementary school, I made this drawing of a bird and being able to see something come to form through your hand. I was hooked.
I saw you talk about your dyslexia in printmaking in an article I read, and how that actually ended up being a skill in the printmaking process. Could you talk about that a bit more and your experience learning printmaking.
Right, it’s always so weird, that these things that feel natural to you, yet and you can see other people struggling with the process. For me, it was like “this is how I think”--you work backward, you work in reverse. I can puzzle through a reduction woodcut in a way. I don’t know, it’s always as if it was second nature. In school, it seemed so effortless for other students to do spelling. For instance, I always had a hard time reading a clock. So you see these other people go through things that are effortless, and then with printmaking, I arrived at something that felt that way. When I found printmaking I was like--this is the thing that I can do that’s second nature.
What I love with printmaking is that there’s this divide between your hand and the mark. So it’s not the directness of painting; there’s this space of mystery and discovery that happens with printmaking.
You don’t know exactly what you’re going to get when it rolls through the press. You sort of give yourself up to this second influence in the mix and I love that.
Yeah that the final result is going to be a bit by happenstance that occurs in printmaking, that even though you know what you’re carving and how you want it to look, you’re not directly seeing the results until you run it through the press and are actually printing.
That’s actually how I always felt about ceramics. You make this work and you glaze it and then you put it in the kiln and hope that it looks ok. There’s this magic that happens in this moment of firing in the kiln. Like with printmaking, whether you’re working with stone, or wood, or linoleum, it’s going to be different once you print it and roll it through. Even only considering just the ink, there’s still this chemical reaction.
Yeah, the sort of alchemy that happens. Glazing is insane because you’d paint with this color that looks nothing like it’s going to do in the fiery blaze.
I did notice that in a lot of your previous work you did include vessels. I wanted to touch on that. Is there a particular reason that you include vessels? Vessels have a huge history of human development in cultures. I know your work often deals a lot with culture and history, as well as identity, and specifically female identity. A lot of vessels were made by women-and were crucial to survival, .ie. storing grains and water. Could you talk about the inclusion of vessels in your work?
Well, you’re hitting on these themes so clearly in the question, I think I’m often looking for these symbols that can be universal. Every culture has a vessel, so it’s not something that only one culture can claim.
Vessels have a global influence and earthiness to them. I often think about how to have figuration in my work—and a female bend—without having to add a body per say.
I also really like owning the fact that women have this potential to create, and that our bodies can be these incredible forms of life. So owning that—it's female power to the max.
I noticed that the bodies that are depicted in your video “Salty & Fresh” have these paintings on them--that to me look reminiscent of Etruscan design—or Heliolithic pottery. It has these classic depictions of humans on vessels around that time, and since you're painting on the human body there's this double meaning and back and forth happening.
I love the specificity of Etruscan because the default is often to claim Greek or Roman, but that use of Etruscan is more true to the influence and more true to this multicultural moment-that was happening in the Mediterranean.
You’re also dealing with African histories as well, which is the cradle of existence where everyone started. So how do all those aspects, of your personal histories and a global history, impact the imagery that you decide to include in your work?
I think there is a very strong Western and masculine art historical narrative that we are taught in school through learning the Western canon in religion, world history, and art history. And so a lot of my work is about an artwork coming to life and trying to understand itself and its own place in this history.
I often think about anthropomorphizing works of art-It’s very much about my own source of knowledge and coming to know oneself. It’s not about separating oneself but reclaiming and positioning myself where I want to be in relation to that.
Could you describe a moment, experience or situation that profoundly changed or influenced your work?
When I was 18, before going to art school I spent the summer in Nigeria teaching at an elementary school. I witnessed Masquerade Day-where headdresses were worn and, while my rational mind understood that these were people in costumes, my experience was quite different. These performers were magical, larger than life beings, that danced and performed superhuman feats of speed and strength and agility.
When I returned home and saw these headdresses in museums, behind glass, it formed a very different understanding of art, life, and institutions. And lead me to a path where I wanted to collapse that space between art and life.
Which is part of the reason I live in New Mexico where distance between art and life is less apparent. That was an extremely formative experience for me. To be in Nigeria, to see these sacred objects that only come out for ceremonial days, that are kept in complete secrecy-- altered my sense of art, magic, beauty, and ancestry. Art can exist like that and have a living presence and come alive.
I really wanted to alter the white cube existence within this gallery and wanted to shift the perspective of what’s high and what’s low, quite literally. Taking the wood and elevating it to the wall, the woodblock print repeats as a wall treatment and dominates the space. And the rugs are up against the woodgrain as if they are on the floor, but they are standing upright.
You keep your work alive I think by having it on video. It’s not just paintings, although the videos incorporate painting, they live on, can stay in that space, it can be something that people don’t just have to go to to look at, they can experience that.
You know I like that connection, I hadn’t made that before. And I think, in this show, a lot of the rug pieces are things that get walked on and used in my home, they are functional objects that one can have a relationship with.
You mentioned living in New Mexico so I wanted to touch on what brought you to New Mexico. But also in conjunction with that, you co-run an artist residency, AiR, and that is one of the projects that you’re currently working on. Could you talk more about that and what led you to create that space?
I run it with my partner and another couple. It’s a team operation.We provide studio space to up to three artists 7 months out of the year. We started it because we love Carrizozo and it’s an incredible community of people and artists, but there was a lack of diversity in race and age. It’s kind of an older generation of people that live in Carrizozo, New Mexico. So we wanted to bring in people who could have dynamic dialogues. It was kind of a selfish impetus to start the program, and it’s been amazing to see the way the community owns it and supports it.
We source a lot of supplies within the town even though there is hardly anything there. It’s almost as if the people are actually the resources and the opportunities and the tools to help others.
It sounds like it’s quite a small town, so there’s not the main store where people can just buy any and everything they need. So you really do need to be acting within the community to source what you’d need. What brought you out there, and stay and create a residency in that space.
I was living and teaching in Bushwick, Brooklyn, New York. But my mom had lived in the area for a while. So I had spent all my summers out there working in South Central, New Mexico. I was familiar with it and loved it. Then I met my current partner, Mike Lagg, one summer and I fell in love. He showed me a studio building and was like ‘you can move out here,’ and I was like ‘I’m never moving out here.’ And then six months later I moved out there. It’s amazing. I can work full time as an artist. I don’t have a job. I have an extremely low cost of living, in part because there’s nothing there to really spend money on.
What advice would you offer to people interested in pursuing a career in the arts or working in the arts full-time?
My advice is that your friends and your fellow artists are more important than anyone assisting you in your career and development. So give those people in your life precedence over those that may appear to be holding all the cards. Forget the VIPs and just make sure you’re really giving your friends and fellow artists their due time in your life.
The show is called “FLOORED” there’s a lot of wood texture, whether it’s in the painting, installation or a fabric backdrop. Could you talk about your choice to include these textures of wood and rugs, in the work, and where you normally wouldn’t encounter them?
I like the idea that you’re highlighting: that there are all these textures in the work, it’s not something that I was thinking about. But I do feel that in our world, that’s the reality of things. We’re sitting here, at this table, your chair has its own texture. And so I’m always wanting my work to have this “of life” vibe to it. When I was conceptualizes showing these rug paintings, it really started just for me in the home. I wasn’t thinking this would be work I would ever show.
That’s great advice. Do you feel like apart of you creating the Carrizozo Artist Residency came out of that connection that you have with your friends?
Absolutely. Yeah, I think artists were so powerful because of our network. We want to be around each other, we love the conversations that we have and we can provide for each other in ways that nourish. Almost every opportunity I’ve had comes from friendships--rather than accolades.
Do you have a favorite artist, or person, scholar, philosopher, or someone, that has influenced you?
There’s this one essay by Audre Lorde “Erotic as Power" and that has been, she has a YouTube video where she is giving it as a speech, and that has been fueling me hardcore for the past four years. Just acknowledging feminine power. It’s a very tight little essay, so that comes to mind. My fellow artist friend, Alexandria Smith, turned me on to it and I would highly recommend the essay “Erotic as Power" to anyone wanting to get their creative juices flowing.
Special thanks to Iris Williamson & John Knight for help coordinating this interview.
Paula Wilson is an artist living in Carrizozo, New Mexico. Her work is included in the collections of The Studio Museum Harlem (New York), Yale University Art Gallery (New Haven), Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum (St. Louis), Tang Museum (Saratoga Springs), and Saatchi Gallery (London). Recent solo exhibitions include: Paula Wilson: The Backwards Glance at The Bemis Center of Contemporary Arts (Omaha: 2017), Salty and Fresh at Emerson Dorsch Gallery (Miami: 2017), Salty and Fresh at Cherry & Lucic (Portland: 2017), Undress at the Center for Contemporary Arts (Santa Fe: 2014), and First Story at The Fabric Workshop and Museum (Philadelphia: 2010). Wilson is a recipient of the Art Production Fund’s P3Studio Artist-in-Residency at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas (2014), the Joan Mitchell Artist Grant (2009), and the Bob and Happy Doran Fellowship at Yale University (2009). She holds a Masters of Fine Art from Columbia University and presently co-runs the artist-founded organization MoMAZoZo and the Carrizozo Colony in Carrizozo, New Mexico.