SB: I know we would both say COVID impacted our art. We’ve been talking twice a month for more than a year now. George, do you remember how our conversations started and why?
GM: These last two years have changed most every aspect of how I interact with people, and that has affected my studio practice. Over time the heaviness of both the political climate and the loss of opportunities to be neighborly have weighed on me. My work just sat on the walls in a kind of limbo with no eyes on it. My interest flagged and the inquiry stalled.
Early last November, you and I spoke of the isolation of our studios in the context of the pandemic and agreed to check in with each other every two weeks over Zoom. We designated each other as our audience of one, and that began to make all the difference in the studio. Having another witness helped me feel held within a circle of meaning, and accountable to someone. My long-standing complaint about the “art scene” had to confront the irony of its absence. I came to acknowledge my great debt to the world of the arts for encouraging audience to play their essential role in the overall arc of my studio process.
COVID has made clear to me just how important a witness is to my remaining engaged, to my processing what I have done, for there to be a sense of completion and release, and ultimately, to my moving on.
SB: When George and I first started talking, I had no idea what seeds we were planting or where our conversation would go. I felt the ongoing pain and weight of the pandemic, life slowed down, closed in, and my studio became a safe haven. I went deep into my own world, trying to trust what evolved with no external input or response to my work but my own. Starting a conversation with George became a touchstone—a moment to reflect on questions and assess what I was doing, a looked-forward-to time to talk about my process, doubts, and excitement. We didn’t offer each other critiques or socialize—we supported and listened.
GM: Did your work change during this time?
SB: Although I am usually quite happy and disciplined in my studio, I was grappling with the value of my work, and the effort to find a place for myself in an art world I had not been a part of for 20 years. I was also unsure and questioning how current events would ultimately show up in my work, trying to let go of any conscious effort to affect outcome, or be explicit, and to give myself over to my unconscious processing of these times.
George, you did have a specific set of concerns and focus. How did your work change during this time?
GM:I started experimenting with recognizable content for the first time, wrestling with how my work might participate in the racial equity dialogue that was and is pulsing with such urgency. I questioned whether my comfort with abstraction was complicit in sidestepping that reckoning.
At first, faces began to appear in my work that were inspired by encaustics from the first century A.D. With eyes looking right at me from across the centuries, these startlingly intimate portraits revealed the poignancy of both youth and mortality. In life, they were placed on the mantle, and in death, they graced the sitter’s sarcophagus.
In these new works, I set the stage with color, texture, and a visual rhythm that radiated without expectation. This spacious mood was then interrupted by eyes lurking from behind the plaster panels. The uninvited presence was intended to be a disruption to an otherwise safe encounter, dredging up the discomfort of Race intruding upon Art. Prejudice and white primacy are embedded in the trappings of art and tacitly amplify privilege. The viewer had to reconcile this inconvenient intrusion alongside the well-oiled and graceful escape hatch that art provides. Art does tend to transmute suffering and discomfort into beauty, turning the encounter into a reflexive act of disassociation.
These pieces do not function properly unless history and legacy are acknowledged, and they will likely never function well because they can be made harmless by the brittle protection of being Art.
I am torn. Art making has always been my spacious refuge where my work sits still, rooted like a tree. That’s been my creative predisposition. Now I want to speak up about injustice. How much courage can I muster? Must I be so literal? And what of beauty?
I know that cultural and racial conditioning are embedded in my visual art, unspoken yet active. The art that I can’t help but make infers what is hidden by what is presented and consequently what has been omitted. While my inquiry has honored qualities that live beyond the reach of language, there is much that remains out of sight because I have had no appetite to look, to recognize, or to acknowledge them. In these, my all too tentative efforts, I am trying, and perhaps trying too hard, to subvert my comfort zone in order to bear witness.
One gift of our conversations was learning more about how you work. Can you talk a little about your process?
SB: Weaving for me is slow and takes planning—it’s a building project. I need to have an idea, and an intuition of what I want to capture, of where I want to end up, before I begin. My thinking and planning is then almost entirely structural and mathematical—in service to that hoped-for end result. I make multiple decisions before I thread the loom that remain a distinct part of the final piece. I work out structure in my head, sketch on graph paper, then make a blueprint with scale and dimensions that help me weave. The color decisions come last and are intuitive and greedy—I want some of everything. I lay out maybe 40 colors and start grouping, eliminating, hunting for a combination that excites me and meets the wants of the piece I see in my head. I know I can’t possibly understand or imagine what will happen as I weave.
Once at the loom there is another layer of understanding as I physically touch the threads, experience the weave, see the mixing colors, and gain a rhythm. The structure, color, play, grows one row at a time. There is no going back or redoing and no jumping ahead.
I am designing within a grid, exploring ways to play with multiple colors, and to take advantage of how light reflects differently across woven and unwoven threads.
As I weave, I continue to be intrigued with the play of pattern, color, depth, and light across the surface. I am interested in seeing how I can push the structure, loosen it in some way so impulse and hand and curiosity enter the dialogue. I am most satisfied with chaos, where you sense the understory, the structure and rules, but you can’t see them clearly or discern what is happening.
Perhaps the effects of COVID and these times are having an impact on my work, as I move toward disorder, stretching the limits of this weave, unraveling both warp and weft, loosening my hold on the structure and the outcome. I do know what is in me will find a way into my weavings. With less control, the pieces get more exciting—although not necessarily better.
Throughout our conversations we talked of how to share our work—what possible options there were for audiences outside of galleries. Before we paused our Zoom calls for the summer, we agreed to do some kind of show together in the fall, in your big workspace in Damariscotta. What do you see as your relationship to audience, and specifically, to the show we had?
GM: We recently hung the show and asked friends, colleagues and community to come help us complete our creative cycle.
While in the past I have been hesitant to explain my motivation, not wanting to influence the actual encounter, I was determined to share what I had set out to do in the studio. I felt compelled to speak about my intention, and to consider how my efforts fell short or had merit. As it turned out, I was asked questions I so needed to be asked without my even knowing it, and in the asking, a logjam gave way.
Sharing my intention out loud and in the presence of a witness can change the quality of that intention. What is fugitive may flee when concretized. And while that’s true, it’s often time for those feelings to be examined and relinquished so something unanticipated, fresh, and perhaps a bit threatening can come into view.
I want to be held to account. Inviting audience in is a collision of planets introducing new elements and changing the chemistry of the inquiry. That’s a good thing, both hoped for and dreaded, as it tempers an artist’s propensity to grow grander in scale or smaller than small when in the solitude of their own studio. Art, in the end, is a relational act.
Providing a roadmap to navigate a work of art is one way to be a thoughtful host, even though it may prompt a certain narrow response. I am paying particular attention to my relationship with audience in this time and being more forthcoming about the peculiar logic and discipline forged in my studio over many years. I am always having to confront the question: “am I am interested enough in audience participation to expend the kind of effort required to include them? Are they valued or begrudgingly accommodated?”
What was the audience experience about for you, Sondra?
SB: I admire your clarity and commitment to audience and appreciated being held accountable for this show, which forced me to overcome my shyness and discomfort with the vulnerability of being seen. Although I am ambivalent about audience, I’m also not satisfied with just stacking up work in my studio.
The show surprised me. Seeing my work in a different context, outside my studio, on the walls of a lovely well-lit space, gave me a new perspective on my work that I wasn’t expecting. The audience, many dear friends who hadn’t seen my work in more than a year, were so supportive. Most of my learning, though, came from my talking about the work, something George and I had committed to do beforehand. Having to put words to the process challenged me, and forced me to examine how I think, in what ways I am moving away from, and staying within, an ancient weaving tradition. In articulating my process, I saw that my thinking and work is not a linear process, but rather the development of a set of tools that are now at my disposal. I learned there is much left out—process isn’t everything—it’s the manifestation of something much deeper that I have not yet put into words.
Before we end, I wanted to ask you: who are those faces anyway?
GM: The faces were intended to confront and be the haunting presence of black and indigenous Americans that live within us, overlooked, and hidden from view. They were intended to demand our attention and be a reminder of how we have turned away. I thought I knew who they were, but who actually showed up is not clear. Whoever they are, they are not angry as I anticipated, or shaming, or confrontational. They are the guests I have ignored. Is this the Muse coming to visit?
When I gaze into their eyes looking back at me, I confront my own longing. In this exchange there is a prayer and the answer to that prayer—a connection by being witnessed, and the promise of release predicated upon having been seen.
I judge myself as “missing in action” for taking refuge in the visually transcendent realm of abstraction, while so many suffer. Yet even if I do speak up and my voice is visually clear, I suspect this art will be message-bound and mediocre. Feeling obliged to be rid of contradiction simply embeds it more deeply. Seeing the struggle is more valuable than it being absent. “Attention” reconciles.
SB: What do you think the artist seeks?
GM: Making is prayer and naming the activity as Art does not fully capture the affection and reciprocity. To participate is the blessing.
SB: I couldn’t say it any better—and what a perfect place to end.
Image at top: George Mason, Untitled with Deep Tones, hydrocal plaster, burlap, casein paint, encaustic, 29.5 x 55.25 in., 2020.
The exhibit was held at the Yellow Church in Damariscotta Mills on November 13 and 20, 2021.