Terri Saulin Frock: The Garden of Forking Paths
A Conversation with Anne Schaefer & Terri Saulin Frock
Anne: One of the first things I am struck by in this new work is the careful nod to art history. Influences of Greek architecture and pottery, Gaudi, Art Noveau, William Morris - they are all there. The work appears unburdened by the past, but it uses those referents, combines them, which in turn, opens up a new freedom of form. They become idiosyncratic works that feel both deeply personal and wholly accessible. How do you consider art history in your work?
Terri: Art history is a very large part of my work, but it filters through in a funny way. Much of the work begins as a response to text and sound, which triggers wandering associations to personal experiences. The art history references have developed into an alphabet that I try to use to describe the "wandering time."
Early on, I had a Nun in 4th grade who lovingly curated the walls of our room with images. She happened to choose the most over the top, ornate, complex and layered works that were a mash up of time and culture. The ones that stand out the most are Gaudi, Botticelli, Piero della Francesca, Breugel, Bosch, Dali, Van Gogh, Morandi and a huge poster of the Prambanan Temple, the Shrine of St. Lachtin's Arm... tons of other Celtic stuff. That experience will forever stay with me. I still imagine the room and how those images were in such opposition to the linoleum floor, the desks, Sr. Dorothy's habit... yet, they seemed to be perfect together.
(I also used to secretly melt crayons on the hot radiator and squish up the warm wax into shapes under my desk.)
Over the last few years, I have been fortunate to experience the mind-blowing gift of traveling abroad with my family. Before the trip, I had only seen my beloved 4th grade images in books. I confess I cried in the Uffizi, Sagrada Família, Miletus and Magnesia. (And several other places) Now, I think my brain takes a quick tour of art history every time I sit down to make something, particularly if I am working in clay. The material records time and the process requires it.
Anne: The aspect of time definitely seems paramount in the work - in the art historical references you discussed as well as your succinct description about the way clay suits a conversation of time through both it's materially and procedural demands. In addition to these elements, I can't help but think of time in a narrative way when looking at this new work. Structural elements support others and pattern decorates the surface. There is at once a density and bolstering of one element against the next for strength but they are also vulnerable and fragile in their attitude and scale. Is there a narrative element that you are getting at through these oppositional qualities of support and fragility?
Terri: There are several narrative elements at work in this particular group of pieces. The obvious Borges/travel influences, but I think the one that I was most conscious of throughout was about material. I was working with three different porcelain clay bodies and was trying to push them to do things they didn’t want to do. At times, I would imagine my self as a wasp building a nest. Over the course of building and several firings, the material would begin to sag or drop, but I would immediately rescue it from collapse with a mix of paper clay and dry clay scaffolding. Throughout the entire process I noted that I imagined myself as tiny wasp-worker. Often, the parts that appear the most delicate end up being strongest.
Anne: It's so lovely to hear you talk about an experience with Art History that it so deeply personal and idiosyncratic. I get the feeling that the boundaries between work, life, family, studio, and history move around and rather than making distinctions you Thrive in a fluid and inclusive studio practice. Regarding your 2011 solo show, Night is a Girl at Tiger Strikes Asteroid, Michael Macfeat wrote about his propensity to examine Individualsʼ bookcases for insight to their interests. He notes that, " the bookshelves in the Saulin home are heavy on Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, two philosophers that use the term “rhizome” or “rhizomatic” to describe theory and research that allows for multiple, non- hierarchical entry and exit points in interpretation." The Art Historical references we just discussed are just one entry point to this new work other themes of accumulation, decoration, support, typography and fragility are all in the mix based on physical attributes of the objects. Additionally, your show's title, The Garden of Forking Paths is a reference to a Borges story. Can you talk about your fluid approach to making and some of the ways life and art intersect for you?
Terri: I like the term "fluid" in your observation of the work. I definitely feel as though I am swimming through a soup of accumulated information as a body of work progresses. I suppose I view the whole operation as a giant pantry and I am creating recipes. I can use the ingredients on hand to preserve a memory that traces the rhizomatic journey of where my mind wanders. The work is usually sparked from a bit of text from something I have been reading. That is the wonder of a well-told tale. The reader is offered one or many entry points to insert oneself into the story or to deviate and create an alternate path. Mental narratives develop as I am immersed in reading. I will hang on to a paragraph when it makes me recall a piece of music, a remembrance of a loved one, parts of conversations or places where I traveled... then the work is in the act of becoming.
The Garden of Forking Paths began while I was reading Labyrinths, by Borges. I was captivated by the idea of "parallel time" and could not stop thinking of the history of my home. To make a long story short... When I first rented my house, everything was old and almost everything that was falling down was buttressed and tied up with nude colored, nylon stockings. Frequently, the stockings were buttered with concrete. After I bought the house, I began to knock things down and make repairs. All of the structures that were bathed in hose and stone were the hardest to remove. When all was said and done, much of the debris from removing old structures was recycled into planter structures in the garden. The work is in part a mental archive of that time. The personal narratives are generally not evident to the viewer, but provide a road map of memory for me. See the above photo, 1. Philomena Aleseio, taken in my yard circa 1940... note the nylon hose, supporting the fig tree.
Anne: It seems fitting that your studio is located in your home as the site of making is in the heart of a location in which the idea of "parallel time" exists for you. I feel lucky to have been able to experience the work both in the studio and now, in the gallery space. Vantage point, display and lighting are all fine tuned in this exhibition. How do you feel about the work once it is separated from the fluid place or primordial soup of the studio? I feel as if the work becomes almost relics or artifacts of all the influences that generated them. Does this resonate with you at all?
Terri: Ideas about what the vantage point will be as well as specific lighting and display elements develop as three or more works begin to “speak” to each other. The studio is like a walk in fridge/prop room. Having worked in the food and beverage industry for half of my life, I always compare things to that operating system. There are literally piles/boxes of parts to things that get mixed and matched until the first character is developed. After the first work is on itʼs way, I begin to create relationships that weave a narrative. I build that first piece a girlfriend/boyfriend, neighbor, child, parent, etc. I suppose the ingredients that make up individual courses in a menu can also be compared to characters in a play. So yes, as I think about your question, it really does resonate with me. The gallery becomes a theater where each character has their chance to command their own moment that traces my influences and rhizomatic wandering time. Thank you again for this conversation. The opportunity to take time and talk about the work has revealed many things about my working process that had not been as clear before. I look forward to developing many more chapters.
Anne Schaefer is an artist living and working in Philadelphia. She is a former member and Director of Tiger Strikes Asteroid. www.anneschaeferstudio.com