Sarah Bouchard — TCELFER REFLECT

The first snow of the season fell on a Saturday evening, December 10th, 2017. The weather was mild, and it was an easy and eagerly awaited start to the coming winter.

That night, I received images of SELF TCELFER (pronounced “self self-er”), an outdoor sculpture I had created that summer for a seaside installation at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art. The piece was now situated amongst trees in a land-trust managed forest as part of an alternative arts event in rural Maine. Although the event had taken place in the fall, the work had remained installed so images could be taken after the first snow.

Our family had just finished a celebratory meal of vegetarian meatballs and pasta with garlic bread (heavy on the garlic) to mark what would have been my father’s 67th birthday. The snowfall felt like an acknowledgment of his passing. The images of my work, situated within woods my father would have walked during his time at college, in the small town where he and my mother fell in love, felt like the completion of yet another circle. Life expanding outward and then circling back to pull us in under the same sky.

Two days earlier, I had met with the director of a small museum to discuss placing SELF TCELFER on their grounds for a two-year period. It would be my first long-term placement of a work at a museum, and my first significant commitment outside the state of Maine.

In order to feel confident about situating the work outdoors for a full two-year period, I needed to transport the piece back to my home studio, to study it through the winter and make any necessary alterations before its journey to the museum in August of 2018.

On December 11th, the day after the first snowfall, I made arrangements to move the work, scheduling a 26-foot truck, and coordinating with the curator to wrangle interns to assist with takedown. SELF TCELFER was a large work, comprised of seven 7’ x 7’ modular panels that could be joined together to form an open-ended octagon. I hired an engineer to help design the work so that two people could easily transport it without compromising the presence of the fully-installed piece. The surface was sculpted from mirrored Mylar, bent and formed to create psychedelic reflections that moved and breathed with the wind.

There is no simple way to describe the work and investment that went into creating the piece. Anyone who makes anything as part of a core practice will understand. I can rattle off the numbers – the monetary cost of making the work, and talk about the grants I wrote (and won) to help fund the piece. I can tally up the hours spent envisioning the piece, researching, sketching, creating mock-ups, and then designing and constructing the work.

What are more difficult to quantify are the moments and expanses of time that imbued the work with deeper meaning and greater significance. Watching my daughter walk across sheets of mirrored Mylar outdoors on our deck on a gorgeous summer day, looking down into the Mylar to see a crystal clear reflection of the sky, and then seeing herself bending that perfect reflection into fractal-like manipulations of sky, trees, cloud and flesh. That is harder to account for.

Sarah Bouchard. SELF TCELFER (detail).
(My daughter helping to fuse together sections of mirrored Mylar by sliding across the surface.)

Or the time my daughter, my mother and I spent crouched around panel after panel, hammering hundreds of tiny nails into the surface, working together to ensure the aluminum sheeting wouldn’t buckle, cut anyone, or shift out of alignment with the frame. A multi-generational investment peppered with laughter, frustration and sore muscles in the strangest places. Or the effort my best friend of 30 years expended, driving eight hours to help with the installation, arriving to find me in those final hours of working 18+ hour days for weeks with no clear idea of how the hell we were actually going to transport the piece without damaging it. How she figured it out. A crazy, impossible scenario that worked. Brilliantly.

Sarah Bouchard. SELF TCELFER (detail).
(Panels joined in the driveway to await transport.)

The path of creation and those unquantifiable moments give the work a meaning and value beyond any number on a sheet of paper. The knowledge that the work would travel, as originally intended, actually finding a new home and marking my first significant placement in a museum. The physical incarnation of a concept that had been slowly and carefully mined from serious, long work tuning in to that quiet inner voice and coaxing it to speak louder and louder until something worth making emerged. The soul investment.

It was Saturday, December 16th when I received the phone call. I was driving to attend my daughter’s winter dance recital. A cold, wind-whipped rain was making it difficult to drive. The curator of the alternative arts event where SELF TCELFER was situated, a phenomenal friend and my first gallery mentor, was on the other end of the line. She was concerned. She had something important to tell me, and thought I should pull over. I did.

At first, I had a hard time understanding what she was saying. She couldn’t get the words out clearly without choking into a mix of speech and incomprehensible sound. SELF TCELFER had been destroyed. It was gone. I remember sitting in the car, dressed up (which annoyed me), staring out the window at a Burger King sign as the wipers continued to shift water around the windshield. I watched the lights as they played off the streaks left behind. Trails. I kind of blipped out into shock and disbelief.

“What do you mean?” I remember saying. It was clear that the curator couldn’t quite comprehend what had happened, herself. An individual who should have known better had taken it upon himself to take his tractor, attach it to SELF TCELFER, and drag the sculpture out through the woods to a clearing where he then broke it apart, took the pieces home and subsequently destroyed them, dumping all remnants at the local recycling center where they were then pulverized. The destruction began on December 11th, the day after the first snow. The curator was not notified until days later. By the time I learned of any of it, the work was literally non-existent.

In the moment, I couldn’t feel the gravity of the destruction. I was blocked. I went logical. I remember I kept asking about materials. They were valuable. Thousands of dollars. No. Nothing. Gone. “But … I can use those materials, even if they’re partially destroyed,” I kept saying. No. Nothing. Gone.

Sarah Bouchard. SELF TCELFER (detail). Mirrored Mylar, Aluminum Flashing, Wood, Nickel Hardware, House Paint, and Nails. Seven 7’ x 7’ modular panels. 2017.

I spent much of that initial phone call wanting to comfort the curator. She was so clearly in a state of shock. She felt responsible, even though it was not her fault. This was an incomprehensible act. I remember saying I would have to press charges against the man, simply because of the cost of materials. I recall mentioning that it was supposed to go on to a museum. My first long-term placement.

I got off the phone and drove to my daughter’s concert. I sat, stunned, as girls in elf costumes danced to something. And then watched my daughter … her beautiful lines and evolving ability in dance. I watched. I did not cry. I was numb and grateful to be amidst a crowd of strangers, all focused straight ahead.

At this point, I have to be very careful of what is communicated in print. As part of the settlement I came to with the man who should have known better (TMWSHKB), I cannot reference him or the details in any way that “an intelligent person” might be able to figure out his identity. So, some details will remain tucked away.

I spoke with the curator regularly. I cancelled the truck and she notified the interns (scheduled for December 18th, two days after I received the call). And I drank. Wine. Whiskey. More wine. More whiskey. I was admittedly a wreck.

I moved through a series of motions each day. I put down the wine and whiskey, for the most part, and returned to yoga. I sought out a counselor. I called around to see if anyone could recommend a good lawyer. I spoke with a few close confidants to try to make sense of the senseless. Violence. It felt violent. And I was raw.

With the help of the curator, I filed a police report in the local town. She gave a lengthy statement. I submitted a statement. The police did no notable follow-up investigative work (the man had admitted, in print, to destroying the work), but weeks later I received a letter stating there was insufficient evidence to charge TMWSHKB with a crime.

I hired a lawyer. I remember sitting outside “the British store” in Freeport on a freezing cold bench, talking to my new lawyer via cell phone, just before Christmas, while my daughter shopped inside. I recall trying to explain what had happened. Like every other person I would tell the story to, I found myself having to reiterate that he would not be able to make sense of what had happened, that logic just didn’t apply. Don’t bother. Just accept the facts we have and help me. Please. Can you help me?

He agreed to take the case on contingency. He was an insurance lawyer (try finding a lawyer for the arts in Maine). He wanted to argue the case as if I had left my car in the woods and someone had destroyed it. He wanted to go after the insurance companies. Conceptually and emotionally, this was incredibly difficult for me to take in.  I told him about the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA), established in 1990, which essentially makes it a federal crime to destroy a work of art. He hadn’t heard of it. He said he would look into it. I found myself feeling further depleted.

We spent hours conversing. Going over the details. I was sensitive to the hundreds of dollars each conversation cost. He reached out to TMWSHKB to no avail. He contacted insurance companies. I waited. Stewed. I had a meeting with the director of the small museum who was anticipating receiving SELF TCELFER in August. I tried to pitch the idea of another work for their grounds. She wanted SELF TCELFER.

I figured out the finances I would need to remake the work in time to study it through the winter so I would not lose the museum opportunity. My lawyer shared that figure with TMWSHKB. Nothing.

I lost the museum opportunity.

By this time, I felt the continuous physical presence of a vast, dark emptiness growing inside me. It could have swallowed up planets. It was like an inner galaxy of pain and longing. I shit you not. And, it was swallowing me. Each day.

Sarah Bouchard. SELF TCELFER (detail). Mirrored Mylar, Aluminum Flashing, Wood, Nickel Hardware, House Paint, and Nails. Seven 7’ x 7’ modular panels. 2017.

My lawyer was very clear that I should discuss the case with no one, not even my fiancé. So, as this galaxy attempted to absorb me, I needed to remain silent. I managed this most of the time, but found (like anything repressed) the story shoving itself out of me at inopportune times. Once the first few words were spoken, I was on an hour-long descent. Usually, the listeners were stunned. Confused. Again, I would have to explain that logic should be discarded. There simply was none. “Was the work offensive?” people would ask.

I am grateful for every person who witnessed my movement through this time without deciding to forever walk away. I was admittedly unhealthy. Emotionally rocked. Mentally rough.

I stopped making work.

Well … I did make one small 7” diameter mirrored Mylar puzzle that TMWSHKB’s lawyer attempted to cite as proof that my studio practice hadn’t suffered. I have finished no other work since the destruction. My heart constricts and it becomes hard to breathe just thinking about this.

I let my first lawyer go when the insurance path appeared fruitless and found another, a woman with experience in copyright law and a basic familiarity with VARA. I went through the story again. And again. We embarked on a legal process that felt disgusting. Difficult. I wanted to take the case to federal court. To set a precedent for other artists. I wanted to win, on principle. Every other person wanted me to focus on finances.

Sarah Bouchard. SELF TCELFER. Mirrored Mylar, Aluminum Flashing, Wood, Nickel Hardware, House Paint, and Nails. Seven 7’ x 7’ modular panels. 2017

The gallery season began. As the co-director and curator of the Corey Daniels Gallery, I am enmeshed in the business of art, regardless of my own productivity. Once the season began, my inability to produce new work became even more painful. My winter (usually intense studio time) had passed without a single new work. Now, summer arrived with nothing of my own to show or sell. The previous year, half of my income came from the sale of my own work. Not this year.

In August of 2018, I agreed to a mediation session with TMWSHKB, his lawyer, his lawyer’s assistant and three insurance company representatives. It seemed TMWSHKB’s lawyer liked the idea of going after the insurance companies, as well. We convened in a tiny conference room that barely fit the table we were seated around, let alone seven or eight additional bodies. One insurance representative was projected on a large screen at the end of the table, joining us via Skype.

TMWSHKB’s lawyer was slick. Measured. Sharp. My lawyer was comparatively not. A bit scattered. She had made it clear she was not a litigator. I wish I had understood the implications of what that meant at the time. In her opening remarks, she read from a series of notes she had taken while we chatted, ten minutes earlier. As I sat beside her, in a room with TMWSHKB for the first time, surrounded by people in pressed suits with shuttered souls, I felt mortified by how my voice was represented.

I had fucked up. I should have sat down with my lawyer, in person, before this moment. (We had never met face-to-face.) I should have listened to myself every time a tiny red flag went up during our phone conversations. I should have been more strategic about vetting people, instead of just choosing the only lawyer in Maine who seemed to have any visual arts experience. I had settled. And now, I would have to settle. There was no way I could bring this to trial.

Essentially, mediation was a series of negotiations that revolved around a set of numbers written on a tiny slip of paper. These numbers shifted dramatically depending on who was suggesting them. We went back and forth, each side situated in separate rooms, with a very kind mediator moving between. The mediator opened our first private conversation by telling me how much he liked the work, and that he was sorry to hear of its destruction. I broke into tears.

After four hours, it became quite clear we were not going to reach the figure I felt comfortable walking away with. It was also clear I did not have the legal representation I would need to win my case. I had spent nine months in the throes of this experience, and it was eroding something within me. Before turning down their final offer, and steeling myself for one to two years of additional legal battles, taking the case to trial, I asked to clear the room and “phone a friend.” I called my fiancé. He had witnessed the process up close, day in and day out, whether I was openly talking about it, or not.

“Take the offer,” he said. “You need to heal. It’s time.”

I did. I thought about my daughter, with two more years of high school left before she heads off to college. Those two years would be spent with me enmeshed in a legal battle? No. I thought of my son, at home for just a short time before striking out on his own. Did I want to be caught up in this shit during the last months he’d still be living at home? No.

Sarah Bouchard. SELF TCELFER (detail).
(Work in process. The first finished panel.)

I took the offer.

I demanded a formal apology. I also demanded the right to write about the experience. Sadly, it did not help to see TMWSHKB stand there, with his lawyer and assistant, hands wringing, saying he wished he could turn back time. I wish it had. But, it didn’t.

Weeks would follow with more ups and downs. Problems with the settlement agreement. Bullshit loop holes and issues TMWSHKB’s lawyer needed cleared before we could proceed, including bringing in third parties and requiring releases from people who weren’t even present at the mediation.

So. Much. Bullshit.

I received a settlement check and paid my lawyers October 2018. A celebration would have seemed misplaced. I have yet to make work, but on December 11th, I intend to start.

Michael Mansfield by Sarah Bouchard

Not all artists can afford a traditional, daily studio practice. For some, the studio is a state of mind entered into on the drive home after a long day packed with professional obligations. These artists make exceptional work while maintaining an alternate identity – be it teacher, parent, janitor, or doctor. For Michael Mansfield, that identity is Executive Director and Chief Curator of the Ogunquit Museum of American Art.

Michael Mansfield, Hummingbird, moving image, continuous, 2008

Earlier this year, I had an opportunity to view Mansfield’s personal artwork – a series of small, intricate video pieces cleanly framed in white and hung on the wall. At first glance, one of the pieces appears to be looped, hand-drawn footage of a hummingbird, its underside exposed to the camera. In another work, a flock of birds fly in and out of a cluster of reeds. Their movement is hypnotic.

I sat down with Mansfield to discuss his work, his remarkable career history (which includes rebuilding Nam June Paik robots and hacking theme park software to run the technology behind the Smithsonian Museum of American Art), as well as his vision for the Ogunquit Museum. This is an excerpt from that interview, focused on Mansfield’s work as an artist. The full interview will appear in the July issue of The Bollard.

Were there any pivotal moments that pointed you toward the arts as a potential career path or passion?

I studied architecture and art history in my first year as an undergrad and quickly realized that the engineering side of architecture was less interesting to me. I was more interested in its visual presentation, mostly through photography, so I chose to study photography. Prior to that, I really didn’t have any exposure to art. I grew up in East Texas. Other than looking at occasional magazines with black-and-white photographs, I didn’t have any access to visual storytelling.

Michael Mansfield, Untitled (aerial view), c-print, 48 x 52 in., 2006

Did travel inform your way of being?

Yes. There is a great tradition in Texas of environmental photography and street photography, Gary Winogrand and George Krause. I was encouraged by the professors I had at the University of Houston to go out in the world with a camera, make images and bring them back to see if they worked. I received grants to travel domestically and abroad to make photographs. I also had a number of paying jobs to do editorial work, which made me better at composing an image. I was working in color photography and black-and-white photography and digital photography and then eventually in video and filmmaking all at once, so I made a pretty wide mess of work.

Were you showing that work?

I was. I had a number of little published projects. I was showing the work in galleries, little student-run spaces, and small community spaces.

Primarily that was street photography and landscape photography?

Yes. I was really focused on the changing nature of street photography, and just having a camera and being a part of something.

Michael Mansfield, Untitled (train car), gelatin silver print, 8×10 in., 2004

How did you move from street photography to your most recent body of work?

The program I was in for undergrad was photography and digital media. It was the first program of its kind, in the ‘90s, at the college level, that combined traditional photography and digital media. Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom, who ran it, were a collaborative called MANUAL. They produced a lot of work that married traditional and digital media and, as students, we had access to some pretty high-tech equipment. I began looking at digital images and how they were composed for computers using Photoshop and layers, and when I left college, that didn’t leave me. I kept working with it. I began working with desktop-publishing video programs. I was making films and then scanning them in and editing them digitally and I was also taking photographs and animating them through the same editing process.

Michael Mansfield, Re Gull, moving image, continuous, 2012

I realize you can’t break apart the technical from the conceptual, but that all sounds very technical.

It was more about trying to find a way to extend an image in time. The photograph was a finite moment. Working photographically, I was often looking at contact sheets. I would shoot 50 rolls of film and produce 50 contact sheets and then see those images in sequence and see how an event unfolded over time. I realized that there were really beautiful limitations to that single image I was trying to create, and once I arrived at that composition, I wanted to expand the image into time. It was a single photograph, but I wanted it to exist for a bit longer. I was really into the persistence of an image, or how one thing stays in your mind for a period of time, and how that informs your association with that object or that event, even though it’s only recognized as 1/25th of a second, or less. Taking that single instance, and then blowing it up and being able to examine it from multiple angles, seeing how I might elaborate on my understanding of what that image was. The work that I produce now is often created from parts of smaller images. It is very technical but my reasoning behind it is much more conceptual. The technology allows me to make the work. It enables me to extend that moment of a single image into something much longer.

Were there any specific concepts or questions you were pursuing that have found their way into your curatorial efforts?

Yes. I’ve always been interested in the artist’s relationship to their material and how that material provides both insight into the contemporary moment, and is also a testament to human ingenuity and creativity, that we can receive a bit of technology that was created for one purpose and then imagine something new from it. Artists have always engaged the latest technologies that are available to them – as painters and sculptors and artists working with more traditional media as equally as artists working with more contemporary media. The role that industry and technology and commerce played in early American modernism can be easily identified in the work you see from that period just by the composition. It is enlightening about what the moment really meant, both to them, then, and to us, now. In the work I’m making, I am seeing the same approach to technology resulting in works that open our eyes to something new, just as was happening 150 years ago.

Michael Mansfield, Prime Reeds (detail), moving image, continuous, 2012

You’re primarily using technology to focus, visually, on nature, which is interesting.

It’s true. I was working in an urban environment a lot, and I always found inspiration in the landscape. I suppose it’s not unlike artists who left the cities and urban areas in the 1880’s. I was encountering the wilderness in a different way and trying to find what that meant. I would take a single image of a rare bird in New Zealand, or in Utah, and then create a world around that single image so I could expand my one experience with that bird. I have a photograph of a North American Red-Headed Blackbird that I took just outside of Ogden, Utah, with a field of reeds in the background. I had a single instance of that bird, but it was not complete, he was hidden behind the reeds. I couldn’t really see him, so I did quite a bit of research into Red-Headed Blackbirds and images of Red-Headed Blackbirds. Then, I constructed him from information I was able to find online, digitally, and embedded him into an image that I could then expand in time into a virtual world. I could recreate his existence and allow him to live a fuller life, something more meaningful that would last longer and be more consequential than just a single photograph.

Michael Mansfield, Prime Reeds, moving image, continuous, 2012

Does your experience as an artist impact your work as a curator and museum director?

I hope it does. I like to think that my experience as an artist makes me more sensitive to the struggles artists go through, especially when I’m in a position to support their work. I know how hard it is to carve out a living as an artist and how much sacrifice and determination and willpower and luck it requires. I hope this informs my conversations with artists. I hope it makes me a better listener and a better champion for the work they’re doing.

What about exhibition design?

I rely quite a bit on my experience as an artist. Helping an artist realize their vision in space within the confines of the gallery is not an easy task and the work that an artist is doing in the studio doesn’t always translate to a gallery space very simply.

You stopped showing your work in 2009 to avoid conflicts within your professional career. To me, that carries a hint of tragedy, but I can see the upside if this decision resulted in a kind of openness to explore concepts and make work without the pressure of the public eye.

It’s true. I have to admit that in  one sense, it’s a huge relief that I’m not under the same scrutiny as an artist, that I’m not at risk in the same way as an artist. I’m able to let go of that work, and I don’t have to take the risk of putting it in front of people. I like the privacy this affords me. I get to work out of the spotlight without any of the competition or conflicts or consequence of rejection. But, what I miss the most is the feedback … making work and having a conversation about it. The discourse around what’s important, what’s meaningful, and relevant.