A CONVERSATION WITH EMILY CULVER: 2017-2018 ARTIST IN RESIDENCE

 

Ok this is the most basic artist interview question: Where do you find your inspiration? What fuels your artistic drive?

My inspiration comes from paying close attention to the world around us. I analyze communicative affordances in our daily lives. These are the parts of objects that tell us how to interact with them and therefore what to expect, things like the handle one would find on a spoon or the open rim of a vessel.

In observing the physical, emotional, or psychological reaction that these symbols and signals elicit, I work to implement these aspects into objects that open up and maintain a fluid space for interpretation. And I find that consequently, by creating an ambiguous space I can direct conversations to center around topics I want to discuss in my work, about gender, identity and sexuality.

Did you always want to be an artist?

It’s silly, but yes! I’ve always loved art and making things, ever since I was a child. I would often ask to stay inside during recess to be in the art room. Most of the time I was told yes, but if I wasn’t allowed to stay inside I would bring my sketchbook outside and draw my friends. I was really fortunate to have an encouraging support system that included my teachers and my family.

 

How did you come to select Metals as a field of study for your undergraduate education at Tyler School of Art?

Originally I thought that I wanted to be a painter, as I especially loved portrait and figure painting in high school, but in undergrad, I took a beginner jewelry class and decided to change. At that time I was starting to become disenchanted with the flat canvas so I was trying to find ways to modify it by building surfaces off of it and projecting surfaces down into the stretcher.

When I started to experiment with jewelry and small metals, I was drawn to this field of study for a handful of reasons. Firstly, the amount of different materials we worked with included everything from metal to plastic to fiber to found objects to wood… the list goes on and on. Secondly, I became really interested in the way that objects interacted with the body. And then there was the challenge to create something not only thought-provoking but also functional. I can really geek out on technique, process, and mechanical function. And then there was the challenge to create something that was small but also important. Basically, working this way allowed me to make entirely complex objects that explore the conversations that I want to be having.

What effects did your graduate school experience at Cranbrook have on you and your work?

At Cranbrook I started to delve more into the metaphysical nature of objects – what they are, what they mean, and what makes them appear as such. Cranbrook, like Arrowmont, offered me the time, space, and support that I needed to research and work out my ideas.

By choosing a graduate program that focused on developing an intense personal studio practice, I was able to really commit myself to the ideas I was exploring in my work. And with the opportunity to have internationally renowned artists offer critique and conversation during studio visits, I was able to meet so many amazing people and hear a variety of feedback.

Your work so provocatively invites the viewer to consider their own body in unexpected or ambiguous ways that are often simultaneously squeamish and delightful. Do you try to create or imply any specific scenarios with your work? Why is it important for us to think about our bodies in these ways?

It varies. Sometimes the work lives as metaphor or poetry in relation to the body. Sometimes they are physical manifestations of my own personal experiences. And sometimes I see them as tools used to question relationships between bodies.

I think it’s important to think about our bodies in these ways because the body is the inescapable “thing.” It is the object in which we will move through life – we can never leave it, our sense of self is contingent upon it, and it is the lens that will color every experience we have.

By creating objects that reference handles, tables, mouthpieces, etc. it’s impossible for the viewer not to think about how to use them. Is interactivity something that interests you? How important is the physical object in your work?

This is a huge topic of discussion in contemporary jewelry: Is it important that the work lives on the body? It’s also a really difficult thing to achieve as one can only have so many exhibitions where people can touch the work or see the work being worn.

So there are a few ways to bridge this, and I have tried some of these tactics myself. One way is through video or photo documentation. But with the work that I’ve been making I think that leaving that interactivity to be desired has been really effective. In not giving the viewer everything that they might desire in viewing the work, by leaving some questions unanswered, I find that they are more creative in formulating their own understanding.

Do you feel like your work in our final exhibition Alternative Bodies is very aligned with the work you were making before you came to Arrowmont? Has your work taken any unexpected detours or developments in the past several months?

I think my work for the past few years has been following a similar trajectory although there are of course aspects that I’ve been actively working to address. I’d say that the work I’ve done here at Arrowmont and the work I did before at Cranbrook all live in the same family together but with development. In addition to digesting and implementing some of the critique, I received in graduate school one thing in particular that I tried to focus on was contextualizing my work within the gallery space.

I found that so often in the past I would become consumed with conceptualizing and making of a singular object but upon its completion, I really had no place to put it except upon a pedestal. So, to better activate and develop the work I’ve made the installation aspect a fully considered component. Now my objects live on tables, hangers, shelves, and floors that are all born from the same thinking.

Which of your pieces in Alternative Bodies is your favorite, and why?

The coupling of What She Saw and When She Walked In because for me these works hold a personal significance. As a collection of objects these works are my reflection of adolescence – of a time when bodies change. Recalling the moments of these discoveries resurfaces feelings of embarrassment, vulnerability, shame, and sorrow. These memories mirror the very lumps and mounds that made them – they sometimes refuse to stay down.

What sorts of goals did you bring with you to Arrowmont?

I came to Arrowmont to work on further developing the body of work I had been doing in graduate school, and I think it has been a very productive and thoughtful year for me. I’ve been able to take some time to consider my graduate school critiques more fully and consider possible trajectories for my work.

I had compiled a list of goals upon arriving at Arrowmont that included exhibiting, writing and publishing an article, lecturing and visiting academic programs, and research reading. I’m happy to say I was able to work on all of this!

How has this residency influenced you? Professionally, artistically, personally, etc.

Well, most importantly I have been able to meet and work with some amazing and wonderfully kind people. Not only the staff whom I was able to interact with on a daily basis but also all of the students and instructors that came to campus from week to week during workshops. As opposed to being alone all of the time working in my studio, I have been able to share and talk about my work with so many people which has been an invaluable experience.

Another aspect of the residency that has been really great for me professionally has been the experience I’ve gained working in the gallery, doing artist talks and presentations, and writing exhibition reviews. I feel entirely more competent and better equipped for the next opportunities in my career.

How does Arrowmont play a role in community education and supporting artists and craftspeople?

I really enjoyed the classes I was able to teach this year. The individuals from the community that I was able to meet and work with really made this residency experience very special.

I was so pleasantly surprised to see the robust scholarship and work-study opportunities that Arrowmont has to offer. I’ve met so many students who were able to come to this campus and take classes with wonderful instructors because of the school’s generosity.

What’s next for Emily Culver?

I just returned from Missouri and Kansas where I was installing an exhibition at PLUG Projects in Kansas City and was able to meet with students and present my work at the University of Kansas.

Next up I’m preparing for another show that will be at FJORD Gallery in Philadelphia, opening in the beginning of June. Other than that I’m preparing to transition back to Philly, moving into a new apartment and studio space where I’m excited to work on some new ideas for future works. Oh, and in the Fall I’ll be teaching!!

www.emily-culver.com

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