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Artist Spotlight: Julie Alland – Artist Talk/Self-Interview

[Julie Alland, Camille Hamilton]

 

I recently asked new member, San Francisco based artist Julie Alland for an interview. Being short on time she shared her “Artist Talk/Self Interview,” written answers to a variety of questions posed to her by a group of fellow artists.

Why did you write the Self-Interview?

Art&ArtDeadlines.com conducted a written interview in 2012. Responding to the interviewer’s line of inquiry was much more engaging and edifying than writing an essay. Remembering this experience motivated me to use a question and answer format for my artist talk at Don Soker Contemporary Art (in October of 2016, for my solo show: “Cryptic Flowchart”). I wrote a few of the questions but owe a big debt of gratitude to artist friends that contributed most of them (Alan Hopkins, Anna Mlasowsky, Carrie Iverson, Cheryl Derricotte, Dean Bensen, Jeremy Skidmore, Lee Foust, Matt Szosz, Rebecca Szeto). They brought up topics I wouldn’t have thought of and helped me approach subjects with fresh eyes.

Explain your creative approach and working methods. What themes do you explore the most?

My umbrella statement is the best way to explain. I call it an umbrella statement because it encompasses all of my work.

Umbrella Statement

My studio practice involves investigating the physical properties of materials. This exploration results in work that connects process and concept. A thread running through my work is a preoccupation with certain themes and ideas. Like a musician who varies how they perform a piece of music, I explore motifs repeatedly with different instruments, styles and tonalities.

 

Selected Themes, Concepts & Preoccupations


Paradoxes

  • Unified opposites. For example: perfect imperfection, ordered randomness, visible invisibility, preserved destruction
  • Appreciating beneficial accidents and blemishes such as: decay, bubbles, devitrification and chemical reactions
  • The creative liberation achieved by imposing limitations on materials and working methods

Disclosure

  • Revealing secrets and what lurks below the surface
  • Substantiating the Invisible (for example: air, magnetism, and time)
  • Portraying things that are too slow, small, distant, or inaccessible to see

Mortality

  • Memory
  • Capturing fleeting moments
  • Celebrating the ordinary

Intersection of the Arts and Sciences

  • Studio as research lab
  • Observing natural forces, human behavior and their interactions with objects
 and environments
  • Systems of logic and organization
  • Archiving and/or distributing information
  • Specimen display

Experimenting and Collaborating with Tools and Materials, by:

  • Trying to stay in control while paradoxically also allowing them to surprise me
  • Using unusual substances and techniques
  • Achieving results influenced by how they react to each other and my involvement with them

 

You have several bodies of work. Please tell us about some of them.

Mixed Emotions Series

Magnetic audio recording tape is made out of iron oxide. MICR (magnetic ink character recognition) laser toner decals are as well and can be fused to glass. Noticing this commonality of materials sparked the idea to fuse cassette tape between pieces of glass. The ingredients were gleaned from mixed cassettes received as gifts in the ‘80’s. Revisiting these artifacts aroused thoughts about the passage of time, memory, the emotional resonance of music, obsolete technology and disappearing activities (such as crafting and writing by hand). Including a glass replica of the tape case is meant to add these elements to the piece.

Magnetic Drawing #1, 2015

 

Magnetic Drawings Series

The pieces in the series were created by placing magnets under sheet glass, sifting magnetite on top of the glass, then fusing the materials together in a kiln. Different sizes and shapes of magnets were arranged and re-arranged under glass until the push-pull of magnetic fields yielded an evocative design. The magnetite is black sand (iron oxide) gathered at Ocean Beach, near where I live in San Francisco. The “Magnetic Drawings” series explores ideas related to the emotional pull of home, the poetry of place, ordered randomness, invisibility (magnetism) and time.

Magnetic Drawing #2, 2015

 

Train of thought Series

The Train of Thought series explores ideas related to memory and cognition. Words and copies of handwritten “to do” lists act as compositional elements in the pieces and represent the concepts I am exploring. Words are visible, obscured or distorted depending on the glass’ surface texture, what is behind them, how they are lighted or their viewing angle. The imagery’s intermittent quality alludes to the experience of struggling to articulate an idea or having words on the tip of your tongue only to have them slip away.

My recently deceased father had dementia for the last six years of his life. Witnessing his decline and thinking about other people’s cognitive challenges (such as my husband’s dyslexia) were the impetus for creating this series of work.

 

What are your main influences?

My Family

Science and art are in my DNA. My paternal grandparents were artists. My father was a college professor. He started out as a physical anthropologist, then changed over to cultural anthropology because he was passionately interested in art and culture. He wanted his kids to be scientists or artists. His wish came true, he got one of each: my brother is a doctor and medical researcher.

My family offered me resources to pursue scientific interests. They also provided art and craft supplies. I was encouraged to engage with these or read rather than watch TV. I grew up surrounded by books and art from all over the world. Our TV was kept in the basement.

My parents took us to concerts, avant-garde films, and performances. We also went to a lot of museums. We saw all kinds of art and crafts as well as artifacts and specimen displays of minerals, fossils, reconstituted broken plates from archeological digs, etc.

Disquietude #5 (Train of Thought Series), 2013

 

Traits I inherited from my family:

  • Determination: creativity requires work and perseverance – not just inspiration: My father spent a lot of time in his study writing articles and books. My mother practiced flute and piano for many hours. She also translates short stories and poems from French to English and submits them to journals and publishers. She’s faced multiple rejections but has ultimately been successful due to perseverance.
  • Gleaning good from mistakes and misfortune.
  • Curiosity, love of learning and problem solving.
  • Needing to create order around me.
  • Structuring my life around being able to spend time pursuing creativity.

 

Other than family

  • My husband Alan Hopkins and other artist-peers who combine concept and materials.
  • The first time I went to Pilchuck, a classmate did a presentation about his work that was very eye opening and influential. He talked about sabotaging his perfectionism by using materials and tools he could barely control.
  • When I was around 22, I interned with an experimental theater group that performed original non-narrative scripts. Words were performed as if they were sound poems, and movement was choreographed in a formalized way. The productions were beautiful and moving even though their performances were stylized and unemotional. They taught me that emotion can be conveyed via structure and content rather than sentimentality.
  • Going to an Eva Hesse retrospective and realizing she collaborated with materials rather than fighting with them (as I used to).

 

What inspires you?

What inspires me most, is experimenting with tools and materials, trying new techniques, researching and learning new facts and skills. Also, my peers and… science, the mystery and beauty of the world - whether it is the sky, ocean tides, peeling paint, rust, or a water-stained piece of paper. Artists that have “made it” who do/did varied work: Gay Outlaw, Roni Horn, Bruce Connor.

Memoranda #3 (Train of Thought Series), 2013

 

How did you start working in glass?

Before discovering glass, I made mixed media, found-object sculptures. The evolution of my work led to ideas that included some cast elements. Since I didn’t know how to make molds and cast at the time, I taught myself. Acquiring this new skill inspired more and more complex casting ideas. Figuring out how to achieve them was very exciting. Eventually I got too proficient and started losing interest because I love technical challenges and problem solving. In 2002 I saw a listing for a lost wax kiln casting class at Public Glass. I knew about glass blowing (which didn’t appeal to me), but had never worked with wax or heard of kiln casting. I enrolled and got hooked because it was way more difficult than anything I’d done before, but also because I fell in love with glass. The icing on the cake was having the brilliant artist Matt Szosz as my teacher. He was open to tackling any project his students could come up with, no matter how complex.

Why do you like to work with glass?

  • It’s technically challenging and versatile.
  • It has a long history: was used by the Egyptians and the Romans.
  • It’s durable and fragile at the same time.
  • Its ingredients come from the earth.
  • It’s industrial.
  • We are surrounded by it in architecture and people use it in their daily lives. It’s domestic and intimate – used in utilitarian objects that are touched by our lips etc.
  • It’s sexy – formed by heat and/or flame.
  • Its transparency allows for complexity because of being able to layer imagery. Also, it’s there and not there at the same time
  • It lets you to distort, obscure or reveal layered imagery by using bubbles as lenses or stretching its surface and/or using translucency.

Is your studio practice about something besides experimenting with materials and the subjects listed on your umbrella statement?

Yes – it’s about impermanence, treating limitations as strengths, being in the moment, and quieting my mind. Seeking a reprieve from anxiety and depression. Building a bridge between me and other people. Using my work as a catalyst for facing my fears.

What is your relationship to death since you are so concerned with traces, memory, and temporality?

Death lurks in my peripheral vision. The potential for things to take a bad turn or fall apart is always in the back of my mind. This awareness makes me notice fleeting moments and celebrate the ordinary.

Where do your ideas come from?

As an introvert, I tend to retreat into my mind and that leads to a certain degree of productive detachment. I think a lot, observe, and daydream. Ideas spawn other ideas. Material experiments and failures do too. Some ideas recorded in my artist’s journal gestate for years until they are ready to be born. I drew what I call a cryptic flowchart to illustrate ideas evolving and intertwining.

Cryptic Flowchart

 

How do you decide on themes?

I do whatever I feel like doing and figure out what the work is about after it’s done. Quite often, my art knows more about my thoughts and preoccupations than I do. The previous sentence is borrowed from someone I admire a lot: the Australian musician and writer Nick Cave. It’s precisely how I feel, though he said it about his songs (replace “art knows” with “songs know”).

How do you work effectively with history?

I don’t completely understand the question but history isn’t really a factor in my work. My approach is cerebral and intuitive rather than intellectual. I sometimes find similarities between my ideas and philosophy or art theory after the fact but don’t use theory or historical references as a launching point.

How does your testing process fit into the development of your work? I.e., does the experimentation drive the concept, or vice versa?

It’s a bit of both but I lean more towards the experimentation driving the concepts. For example: the idea for the “Mixed Emotions Series” came to me after figuring out how to fuse audiotape to glass.

How does chance factor into your work?

I’m open to beneficial accidents. Unexpected results sometimes create new concepts. I try to maintain a harmonious relationship with chance by working with materials in a collaborative way rather than fighting with them.

These processes are very time-consuming. What is the draw and what are the implications for your work?

The time-consuming aspects of the work can be frustrating and boring but I grit my teeth and push on if the idea excites me. On the other hand, the time factor can be a relief when I’m having trouble coming up with new ideas. It means I can plug away at a series and still feel satisfied. Boredom often leads to coming up with new ideas, but I have to admit to shying away from some time-consuming techniques (such as lost-wax kiln casting) because I’m not as patient as I used to be.

You do bookkeeping as your day job. Is it pulled into your art in some way?

People think that bookkeeping is all about math. That’s not true. It’s about keeping track of information using systems of logic and organization. It’s also about solving puzzles and resolving problems.

I have a very disorganized mind. I cope with it by organizing things in the physical world. I make my work in a systematic way once I’ve figured out how to achieve my ideas (especially if I’m working on a series). When you work with glass, you need to think about the outcome before you begin. Bookkeeping is the same. You also need to keep track of how you did things if you want to reproduce the results and/or build on them.

Were you always interested in science or did your relationship to science change, as your art studio became your "lab" for creative ideas?

As a kid, I didn’t do well in science classes but I was always interested in the aesthetics and mystery-solving aspects of science. In an alternate universe, I might have become a geologist (I love rocks and fossils), archeologist, psychologist, technical manual writer or forensic detective.

Mostly About Love Problems (Mixed Emotion Series), 2016

 

If one assumes that science is analytical and art making is an emotional response; what interesting crossing points do you see between art and science?

Both offer ways of exploring ideas, satisfying curiosity, posing questions, suggesting answers or observing society and nature.

What is the potential of merging these two ways of thinking when approaching art making and how do the results speak about that potential?

They can enhance each other by adding depth, increasing awareness and understanding. Hybridizing the two as a form of communication can aid in spreading and explaining ideas that may be intimidating and/or confusing if presented in a purely scientific way. Another perspective is that merging art and science is an effective way of creating and disseminating “good” propaganda.

What role does text play in your work?

It conveys information in an oblique way. It hints at meaning. It’s left open to interpretation.

The text I use falls into two categories: Category number one is the found to-do lists. I was initially drawn to them for their unselfconscious beauty and storytelling aspects, then later for their relationship to memory. Category number two is the words or phrases used to express ideas in a minimalistic way (as in the disquietude sub-series).

How do you present memory and nostalgia without slipping into sentimentality? There is a certain vagueness to your works that preserves the unanswered questions inherent in the work.

Part of my answer is related to the notion mentioned earlier that science is analytical and art making is an emotional response. The mixed emotions series pieces are presented like a set of specimens. This quasi-scientific display injects an element of emotional distance and adds balance. The unanswered questions are preserved by using absurdity (for example, preserving audiotape by preventing it from being played), and paradoxes. Ambiguity is created by opposites bouncing off each other.

Mostly About Love Problems (Detail), 2016

Two series of your work, the mix tape and magnetite, explore the ideas of magnetism. Can you elaborate on this attraction (ha ha)?

I’m attracted to the magic and absurdity of creating something tangible out of invisible and fleeting elements such as magnetism, sound waves and time. Audiotapes are a double-whammy because magnetism is used to record sound and music is a time-based medium.

What are you working on now?

A few different things: More “Train of Thought” pieces about memory and cognition with to-do lists and other text. Experimenting with different ways of making and using glass powder wafers. Creating designs with, or inspired by, different forms of adhesive tape. Learning video editing so I can make pieces that combine moving images and glass.

Memoranda #6 (Train of Thought Series), 2013

 

Where can people find your work?

Don Soker Contemporary Art in San Francisco has four pieces.

Also, one piece each in:

  • The Glass Art Society Members Juried Exhibition at Glass Wheel Studio Gallery in Norfolk, VA
  • A group show at Corning Museum of Glass’ Rakow Library in Corning, NY called “Curious and Curiouser, Surprising Finds from the Rakow Library”


Hopefully more shows are on the horizon; four applications are pending - fingers crossed.

Visit my website at www.juliealland.com.

Visitors are welcome at my studio in San Francisco as long as I’m given ample advance notice.