Kelly Kivland in Conversation with Michelle Stuart

Kelly Kivland in Conversation with Michelle Stuart


– So this is Michelle Stuart who I’d introduced briefly earlier. We’re gonna just be walking
through a bit of her work as a way to first acclimate
us to the conversation, but also to think about various aspects I believe of your practice, I hope, from the early days up until today. But as we do that, I think it would be
important for us to consider forms of support in ways of which you had to look to realize these work. Whether that was through money,
or funders, or collectors. All the various attributes of how you had to go about things. I guess we’ll begin. Is that okay? – You want me to answer that right now? – Yeah I mean well no, I think As we go it might be nice
– All right. – ‘Cause I think each and every piece probably has its own answer. But maybe we’ll even
start from the beginning. So just a little bit more about Michelle. She grew up in Los Angeles and she attended the city’s
Chouinard Art Institute which is now the California
Institute of the Arts. You worked as a topological drafts person, a position that very much followed in the footsteps of your father. And who, I believe, mapped the water lines in California’s deserts, is that correct? – No but that’s okay. (audience laughing) – No, okay well that’s what I have, sorry. Well, he did, not you, yeah. You then moved to Mexico
in the early 1950s and you worked as a studio
assistant for Diego Rivera which I do know is correct. – Mural assistant. – Yeah, mural assistant, yes. And then in ’57 you moved here and you’ve been here ever since, or primarily here, in and out. – No, I went to Paris and – You went to Paris
– and then to Europe for three years.
– and then you came, yes, exactly, in between Mexico
and New York she went to Paris but she’s been here primarily ever since. So maybe if as we go through your work you can just share more about those early years. – Which early years? – Well, as we go through,
thinking about it through the lens of your work, how’s that? So maybe talk us through
these early pieces since you can see them a bit better than I from this angle. – You want to begin? – No. (audience laughing) Well what can I say? I mean, these, a lot of
these boxes that I did came out of sculptural boxes that I did that we’re not gonna look at
which were done in the ’60s. Which were plaster boxes. And, well they were wood boxes with plaster sculpture in them. – Mm-hmm. – And then they developed
into what you’re seeing, the earth boxes. And the one that, that
one in particular was you know an earth box that was kind of just my hand. So it was, the sculpture
in the ’60s were my body. So that predates the
involvement with the earth. And then there were moon
drawings at the same time. I picked, we may have a moon drawing here. – Well if we don’t, do you mind sharing? This moves just a little bit further. – Moon drawings predated the scrolls. I think we reduced this slide talk. The frottage pieces are
pieces that were done on the earth and they came from fault line pieces that
I did also on the earth where there were fault lines. Because when I was doing the moon drawings I was very interested in the emanations that the moon had on us. – And were the moon drawings similar? No, they were very different. – They were actually
very explicit drawings of the moon and I wrote
NASA for photographs and they sent me a bunch of photographs and I used them and I
used them in drawings and I used them as reference points. And since I had worked as a cartographer it was very easy for me to
translate aerial photographs. So these are the frottage pieces. And they’re meant, the
floor pieces are meant to engage the viewer physically. There’s a kinesthetic, can you see it? – [Kelly] Yeah, yeah,
I was gonna skip along to the other ones. You can keep talking. So you can see here how
they roll onto the ground is what she’s been mentioning. – [Michelle] Some of them went
20 feet out onto the ground. – [Kelly] Oop, there’s a, – [Michelle] You just missed one. – [Kelly] Yeah, I skipped one. This is a different piece. – [Michelle] Now that one was about rain and wind and how things change in while they’re, it’s about time more than anything else. And this, these pieces
are kind of the beginning of my interest in time as much as earth or any other, – [Kelly] How do you mean, in terms of, – [Michelle] Well I was interested in how time changes things. – [Kelly] In terms of the
process of bringing the earth, – [Michelle] It’s process. – [Kelly] Yeah, it’s process. – [Michelle] Yeah. I’m very interested and I
still am interested in that. I think time is probably maybe the salient characteristic of a lot of my work. – And with the moon drawings for instance the idea of time you
really brought into the sort of universal or celestial time. And that also carries
forth in a couple of works we are going to see that
are in the landscape. Okay, maybe we can,
wanna talk a little bit about this before we
move to the earth works? – All along, not so much
in the last few years but beginning in the early ’70s I did book object pieces that
were about time as well because they were geological time. And they were stratified. Some of them you couldn’t
open and they were kind of the a metaphor for what we
don’t know about the earth and the silent secrets of the earth. – And can you just share the maybe describe the
piece for everyone as a? – Well they can see it. (audience laughing) It’s earth. – Yes, okay. But your idea of the book maybe is an interesting concept
in terms of how you’ve you know the structure of the piece and also the material itself. – It’s meant to be layered and stratified and rubbed by me, – Great. – Basically, it’s it’s about time. Well I mean I feel that. – Well I think it incorporates your own process of time, correct, the layers of the work, the materials but bringing the lead itself of course is as you said the geologic time. But I think it’s also maybe interesting to think about permanence
and impermanence as well with these early works,
especially as we’re going to move and talk about the earth works. You want to talk a little bit about that? Because I know you have mentioned the idea that you bring that into
your thinking around these works in terms of how
permanent you view them. – The works that I’ve done? – Yeah, maybe even for instance this. – Well this is, this is very
different from the works that I’ve done outside. Because this was meant
to be brought inside. And the scrolls were meant
to be brought inside. Though worked outside. However, the so-called, because
I didn’t call them that, earth works that were done outside, to remain outside,
– What did you call them? Let’s actually we can go to some of them. – This one’s a perfect example. It was at Art Park in 1975 and this was the original place, – And that’s in Niagara,
up by the Niagara, – Go ahead. – No, I just wanted to
give context, that’s all. (audience laughing) So is everyone familiar with Art Park, do you want to share a
little bit more about what Art Park was and how
that commission came about? – Well, it was, they say
it was a Smithsonian idea and I took it to be that. I think some people wanted
to do pieces up there that they took with them. But the idea was a beautiful idea. It was all about taking what had been literally a dump, – Doesn’t look so much like a dump but, – It had been more than a dump,
it had been a refuse pond. – Yeah, yeah, yeah, oops sorry. – And making it, for me anyway, I’m speaking about my concept of it, an impermanent piece in the land and this one lasted
fortunately about a week but it was about 460 feet of earth rubbed and smashed heavy, heavy paper that was muslin-backed the color was the strata
from one of the layers of time in this escarpment. So it was two-fold or
three-fold in terms of time because the Niagara falls
had been in this escarpment about 12,000 years earlier, and the coloration on this piece was a stratification from this escarpment. There were many different stratifications, but I took the one that I
thought was the most beautiful and smashed the rocks into
the surface of the paper. And then the paper wasn’t
this long so they had to be sewn in 30 foot stretches. And then they were brought down. And it was meant to be seen just while it was up there. – [Kelly] So when you say
it was around for a week or was on view for a
week, did it disappear? – [Michelle] Yes, it disappeared. – [Kelly] Disintegrated? – [Michelle] Well, a big wind came along. – [Kelly] And took it with it. (audience laughing) – And that was it, I mean, – So for context I’m sure many of you know what Art Park was, but it was a, and they have a wonderful website now, as of a few years ago where you can see all the lists of artists
that were commissioned to be part of these projects. And it only lasted for
a few years in the ’70s I believe, or actually
through to to ’80s I believe. – It kind of muddled
through a little longer but, – Yeah, it kind of like, It was dragged along a bit but the early years, yeah, exactly. – Earlier I mean it was the earth, the park was Rockefeller given, – To be used for these
commissions, exactly. But some of these commissions,
I want to make note for this particular commission for you this is something you had to self-fund or find your own way of
realizing, is that right, or did they give you money? – No, they they flew us up and if I remember correctly, I actually am a little
not sure about this, they paid for my trip and my stay and I think they paid for the paper. – Okay. (audience laughing) – So, – Materials. – The materials, yeah, and that was it. – Okay. – Yeah. – But you had mentioned to me I think that some other artists
might have had a team that arrived with them. – Oh yes, well it was a
learning experience for me because I had never done
an outdoor piece before. And I didn’t bring a team. – But others did. – I didn’t bring a writer,
I didn’t bring a helicopter, I didn’t bring a photographer, and I didn’t bring an assistant. So many of the artists
that were working up there on the same gig time
helped me with the piece. – Oh great, okay. – Yeah, it was very generous
of a lot of the males. (audience laughing) This is a piece that never got done. I mean it was, – And unrealized work. – It was an idea that a woman I can’t remember her name now but she was Cultural
Director of New York City for a brief time in that period and she wanted to take
that Breezy Point Park and have artists do pieces there. And that was, and it had it was a very interesting
proposal I thought because there was a, it had been during the war
that they had put up bunkers in case of Germans landing. And they were very
unsightly, ugly bunkers. And so my idea was to change
the bunker into a mountain with indigenous plants
and then have the inside which is where soldiers had turrets have the water coming out of the waterfall and into a pool. So I wanted to make it into you know a magic spot, a nature spot. – [Kelly] Two questions. So why wasn’t it realized, but also we sort of skipped over your turn to the outdoor with the Art Park work. So for this in Art Park and
then also then this work you had made a turn to the outdoors. I was curious how and why that happened or what your curiosity was. I mean obviously you were
working with the land and bringing it in the
interior with the works we saw earlier but for instance, – [Michelle] Well this didn’t
get made, so this remained. – [Kelly] Why didn’t it
get made, is that just a, – [Michelle] Because
they chose four artists and the four artists did proposals and then the person that
wanted to do it contacted, which she should have
done at the beginning but didn’t apparently,
the Parks Department. (audience laughing) – [Kelly] Okay, of course. – And the Parks Department
didn’t want it done. (audience laughing) So yeah. – We’re familiar with that
bureaucracy quite a bit. Yeah, yeah, they don’t
always talk to each other. – Well it turns out it’s
the only national park, – In New York City? – Yes, it wasn’t a New York,
that’s the other problem. – Interesting, okay. I was gonna, so this is
also part of the scrolls. This one for instance is
on view at Dia Beacon. It’s part of our collection now. So that’s a bit more on that. So I’m gonna skip to this. – Now here’s another case in point. This was really about time. I got a lot of grants, – Yes, I want you to talk about them. – I guess because I was always poor. – There’s a lot of labor
involved in writing grants, yes. – And for some reason or another
I was very fortunate with I got in the early ’70s
I got the Guggenheim and I got two or three national endowments and then New York State had
grants and I got a few of those and in one of the grants they said would you like to do
something which you’ve never worked with before and I said yes, I wanted very much to do a video. And I wanted to do a video
about the change of earth after it’s been raped, you know, which it had here. So I had, I hired a a helicopter and I went
around New York State looking for land that was really damaged tremendously by industry. And this had been a Martin
Marietta quarry, and so fortunately there was no
one there but a caretaker and I cajoled him into
allowing me to work there. And so I did this piece which was a video piece which was about time and strata and you can see there
strata marks where I dug and you know examples of different stratum from each layer of stratification
for many many feet. And the lengths of the the paper with the earth on
it, it’s a little hard to see but if you look carefully it’s
got three different layers. It goes all the way down
to the base of the quarry which I wanted to go
back and film every year to see how the nature was
returning to the site. And I was not allowed to do that. – [Kelly] Just this once. So similarly, going back to this work, Sayreville Strata Quartet, – [Michelle] That’s another
site that was damaged actually by industry. It was a site in Sayreville, New Jersey which no longer exists because developers have developed the whole area. But it was a 19th century
brick factory, several of them. And a very well-known brick factory that made bricks for
probably most of New England. And so the brick factory was
there because the earth was so clay-like and beautiful. – [Kelly] Red, real red. – It made great bricks. So this was a mess. It was the brick factory, it was really an industrial waste site with pools and all kinds of stuff. So I kept going back
there and getting earth and getting different
layers of the stratas around the site. It was a large site. – You want to just talk
us through a little bit of the process of making the scrollworks? – Yeah. (audience laughing) – Because they’re, – What this the earth there generally was fairly damp so I had to do most of this
by digging a lot of earth and taking it back to the studio and smashing it into the surface of this very heavy archival paper
that was muslin-backed, laminated, and smashing it. And then when the rocks broke up into smaller pieces I would rub and rub and rub again and again. And it, but I very carefully
kept it even, of course, in terms of tonality and what I wanted in each piece. – How long do these take you? – I didn’t, – Yeah, you didn’t time yourself, yeah. – Yeah, – Again, time unmeasured, yeah. Can you share where were they presented during this time period? Where were these presented,
these works in the early years? Because you had shared
with me a little bit about the different receptions say in Europe versus United States at that time. – I think I showed it first at Dral Calbert. I actually don’t remember
whether it was Dral Calbert in 1977 or eight or, – Okay I’m more curious
as to the reception that you had shared with
me in terms of how the European collectors, individual collectors seemed to be a bit more bold in thinking through the idea of, – Yeah, that was absolutely true. I showed it in Soho in a gallery long gone named Max Hutchinson’s and he got a call from a European dealer, Shmaela in Dusseldorf who
had seen some of the works and he wanted to do a show and this was 1974 I think. And Max said you talk to
him and I talked to him and he didn’t speak English very well but I said sure, you know. And I said, “Max, do you
want to handle the show?” and Max said, “No, you handle the show. “Nothing’s gonna come out of this anyway.” And you know I had a show
– vote of confidence. – In Dusseldorf and sold out the show. And it was very interesting
because it was extremely difficult to sell these
works in the United States. I mean, almost impossible. Occasionally someone would buy one but it was very rare and
people worried about longevity, they worried about their house cleaners. They worried about their children, they worried about their dogs. But for some reason the Germans
didn’t worry about anything. (audience laughing) I mean I saw most of them in Germany. Later on also in the
Scandinavian countries but for some reason or another there was a big difference between the way we perceived of art and the leap that they
were willing to take. And those works still exist. – Amazing. – I mean they’re still perfectly you know, – Did you ever have any
contact with those collectors as them anything of the, – Well I now Swerner
bought a couple of them, – From somebody? – From one of those collector’s estates. – And they’re still in good condition. – Because a lot of those
collectors were older people and they’re gone now. So their estates became available. – So maybe for the
interest of time we can, – What was the last one? Oh that was yeah. – This is yeah. – Yeah. Well I always took
photographs of all the pieces. – We’ll talk about your
photograph of them. – And since the very beginning because I knew that most
of them wouldn’t last. I mean the outdoor ones. And I was very interested in
documenting what I was doing and so I did it, this
was the way I did it. I had a lot of grids of everything I did. And I still do. But I thought one example of it would be good here
because this was the piece that you couldn’t see very well in the black and white
photograph of the quarry. – Maybe I’ll, I’m gonna
skip a little bit here. Here, I wanna, – Well this is one, now
speaking of difficult to you know, pay for, Portland Center for the
Visual Arts which was run at the time by Mary Beebe who
does the Stuart Collection in Southern California. She wrote and asked me
if I wanted to do a show and I said I had just
done a show in Seattle thinking it was close so you know, put it of course but, and so I said could I do
a piece out in the land? And she said well, we
only have 2,000 dollars and that includes your airfare, how many times do you want to come out and you know, and where are you staying, – And the materials.
– And the materials. So this was done for
2,000 dollars plus me, I made nothing, but I was flown out a couple of times. And they were really
great because they got me an assistant who, we camped
out there for a week or two building this piece. They found a man who
wanted to get rid of his boulders because his horses
were tripping over them. He gave us his new white truck. So we got all, we took
all the rocks we needed and stones and boulders and camped out there with the rattlesnakes. And we made a path with
them and we weren’t going to put a boulder over a rattlesnake hole, and they didn’t, they
didn’t bother us at all. And it was a really wonderful experience. And it was about, it was about time. It was a great big clock. And it was about when the solstice over the mountains rose
and that was the alignment that you see with the map. – It was also this drawing here, yeah. – And when it went down over the Cascades. – Well the resourcefulness
and I think the inventiveness of realizing these
works is really integral to thinking about how you
you know develop them. How you thought through them and your dedication to that. How were you supporting
yourself as an artist during that time? – [Michelle] I actually wasn’t. – [Kelly] Yeah. – [Michelle] I would
sell every once in awhile and that was it. – [Kelly] Mm-hmm, and you
had to have it stretch. – [Michelle] And the grants. – [Kelly] And the grants yeah,
which is a lot of effort. – [Michelle] The grants were great yeah, I mean the grants were you know, if you did it correctly, – You were able to, – Didn’t eat, paid low maintenance, yeah. – Okay, maybe just a couple more. I don’t know how we’re doing on time. This is also beautiful part of the piece. – That’s one of the
drawings for the piece. – Yeah similar to the photography you do sketches and other things that remain a part of it. I think that I’ve heard that some of this still remains, is that correct? – Hmm? – I’ve heard rumors that some
of the piece still remains. People have made pilgrimages out here. – Yes, I’ve had letters from
people who have gone out there and journalists who have
gone out to see the piece and have said that there
are parts of it that remain. I had no desire for it
to remain in particular. I mean it, you know,
it was meant to go back into the earth again after I did it. It remained for actually a few years. I mean 1979 so it still has
a few cairns, they tell me, and people have weddings out there. (audience laughing) – Of course, destination. Speaking of sort of impermanence again and the idea, this is
a shoreline, correct? – Yes, well this was another place that invited me to do an outdoor work and it was in Nantucket. And I’ve always been really
interested in the sea. So I said yes because
I wanted to do a piece that was about a voyage
to the South Pacific. And I mean it’s a perfect
place because it was a whaling island. And whaling area. And so I imagined a ship that went down in a storm
off the coast of Nantucket and what it would have in
it if it washed up to shore. So I did about 200 sculptures out of hydrocal and
structo-lite that were shaped as elements of a sailing ship but also elements of
the South Sea islanders which would have traded with the sailors. So I’ve kind of always been
a Captain James Cook buff and so I’ve read a lot
of books on that subject. I don’t know if we can see them up close. Oh, this is a piece I
did on an island as well. In Finland, and this is also a boat. But I had every intention to do another piece but when
I got to the island, this was also no money involved. But when I got to the
island I found an elk and the elk’s head is
hanging there in the tree and all those things hanging
in the tree are elk fur. And the boat is with handmade candles. And on midsummer’s night the boat, the winds make the candles go bring the boat into the forest and in the forest there are stone boulders that have candles. So it’s about, – [Kelly] Was it to be experienced or did it exist for people? – [Michelle] It’s about death in a way. – Okay, but was it, were
people to be present for this experience? – Oh yes. Well it was interesting
because for the whole time that we made the piece
there were about five people on the island. – Oh, wow. – But it happened that
– It’s for the elk. – The night that the piece was finished was midsummer night and
on the island they had put together a dance platform and hall and millions of boats
landed in the little harbor and all these people got off and they were all drinking
and cavorting and dancing and they all experienced this, I’m sure they’ll never forget it. They just, this was on
their way to coming back from dancing and drinking into their boat. And it had a huge audience. I mean really a huge audience. I mean, – I only ask because I think
that’s a part of this work, I think it’s as you were
talking about the experience earlier and also ways of support. I mean a part of this was the question of who’s going to see it,
who will experience it, how will it be experienced, does it have the impact or the magnitude that say you know a painting might have that has visitors to it every day? – It’s so satisfying you
can see that build it. I mean that’s my joy out of it. I mean I, you know it sounds kind of, – No, but I think that’s the core. – But I loved to do these pieces. I mean they were just you know, I’ve considered
myself very lucky to be able to do them. Now this was an invitation, I had a show in Helsinki at a gallery. And somebody, the Finnish Art Association said can she come back
and do a piece in Finland? And that was the piece I did. – Hmm, fantastic. – [Woman] I think, Kelly, I’m sorry, I’m going to interrupt you. – No worries, we can wait for questions. – [Woman] I’m having an amazing time and we could go on forever.

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