Our art co-editor Cynthia Close recently had this exchange with Riki Moss, whose work is featured in our Vol. 2 print issue. Here’s what Moss had to say about the influence of place and working space on her evolution as an artist; how she balances the impulses to paint, sculpt, and write; and some of the artists and themes that inspire her.
You were born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. You got your undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago, then an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Can you talk a bit about the pluses and minuses of studying art at a big city institution as opposed to a place with a smaller population density, like Vermont?
Studying art in the big city – NYC, Chicago and San Francisco for me – as a young person was the best time for me to be in the cities. I was young, tireless, energetic, wide open to all kinds of experiences, and it immediately became apparent that creativity, art-making, would be infused with experience and vice versa, that it was a life style as well a “profession.” There are so many teachers in the city. Actual art teachers to help refine techniques and explore media, as well as theater, music, dance, and the opportunities to interact with all kinds of people. I was at the San Francisco Art Institute for a time as well, so I was exposed to West Coast sensibilities, which were quite different from what was going on in NYC. It was a more open and less male-dominated environment, where traditional craft-making morphed into the fine arts.
Cons? A young woman on her own in the big city can get herself into trouble. That’s all I can think of. The cities were full of wonder for me in college and afterwards, living in lofts in what’s now Soho. That said, I always found ways to get into the country to chill: for me it was Woodstock, NY; Big Sur; and later, Vermont. In the country, the landscape, the creatures, and the planet nourish me. I moved here on a counterculture wave, when NYC got ugly in the early ’70s. Moving from a loft to an isolated mountain was painless: I see that a good deal of my freewheeling city art-making leached into survival. Baking breads, making tofu, figuring out how to make a living as a potter, something that never occurred to me in New York. I had to leave and spend a long time in Boston to recover some balance as a creative person – living in an artists’ building, curating shows, becoming a painter, first, and then moving into sculpture. When I came back, somehow Vermont opened up for me. I was twelve years older and not so vulnerable to other people’s work, and was able to work in relative isolation. I say “relative,” because I quickly discovered the rich community of artists living all over the state willing to drive long distances for each other.
You have had success as a painter, a sculptor, and a writer (besides exhibiting widely, you’ve published a novel, titled An Obese White Gentleman in No Apparent Distress, 2009). You are still productive in each expressive medium. On any given day, how do you decide if you will go into the studio and work with your hands or sit down at the computer and write?
I don’t decide. Whatever comes first, is first. Unless of course there are deadlines, which work well for me. Without them I tend to circle problem solving, whether it’s writing or working on a piece of sculpture. I need the balance. Writing means sitting still and sculpture is much more physical. It may be that simple: my body telling me what to do.
Artists have to be creative when it comes to surviving financially on their work. Some artists, like yourself, have been awarded residencies and grants. What role have these opportunities played in your career as an artist?
Grants are great, although you have to write them, which is tricky, even for a writer. I find that they allow me to go further on a project in ways I might have rejected due to lack of money. Residencies are the best, especially the ones out of the country, where you get to meet all kinds of artists and explore new ways of thinking and making. I find most of us feel invigorated after a residency, although that soon fades.
Sculptors face great challenges in that their work requires a lot of space to make, to exhibit, and to store. Can you talk about the various studio spaces you have worked in and how the limitations of space affected your work?
Space absolutely has lots to do with my work. This is often a neglected subject, so thanks for asking. The best space for me is outside. When I was a kid, I painted in the family garage that opened into a scruffy little garden where no one could see me. In the winter, I used a tiny attic room that used to be a closet. There, I learned that working small and meticulously isn’t in my nature, so I ran rolls of paper over the walls and into the bathroom next door, which had the added advantage of a big claw footed tub. In college I worked in communal studios and hated them, so I started my writing career by working on notebooks until the campus coffee shops closed at night. I discovered clay at the SF art school, where at the time amazing work that had nothing to do with tea pots was being done by five guys in a shack behind the school. They tortured me but eventually ignored me. I was kind of a mascot and loved working outside again. Back in the city, a boyfriend and I turned the entire space, including the roof, into working space, and cooked on hot plates. Friends and I built a gas kiln in an old chimney, and someone got the gas meter to go backwards so we did’t have to pay. I had a basement studio my first time in Vermont, and felt depressed there: no room, no light, no inspiration. Now I have the studio of my dreams, and can work as large as I like, which is natural to me – I’m the big sloppy gestural person you’d never call refined.
Your use of abaca paper as a sculptural medium is particularly well suited to your imagery. The works made from it appear to have been once alive, remnants of a lost world, like Pompeii. How did you discover abaca paper?
In Boston, I’d been working in Encaustic and had a nice clean space in a renovated storage facility down the block from where I lived. My 99-year-old father had taken to his bed in a nursing home and stopped eating (he was waving a credit card, clearly checking out). I’d sit with him, then go back to the studio where I had set up ten 12” x 72” panels. I started painting with the first on one the left, and as the days went on, worked my way to the last panel on the right. Then, my dad, who had stopped eating, took his last breath. That night, I randomly reassembled the panels and, in the morning, realized that the forms in the painting really wanted to be sculpture. I was in my 50s by that time and wasn’t about to learn welding or go back to clay. I was thinking of a light material that wouldn’t be difficult to work with. I took a weeklong workshop with some dynamite paper-makers. My husband was also drawn to the material. He became the engineer, inventing new uses for the materials and devising the mechanics to make things happen. Our ways of working with the material were very different, and so Abaca took over our lives for years in Boston. When we moved to Vermont, we immediately set up separate studios here.
You have embraced “installations,” sometimes referred to as “site work,” as a vehicle for putting objects out in to the world. Can you tell us how a particular site influences the art made for it?
Since my natural tendency is to work big, installations are a natural. As are ideas. I work in modules that can spread out into various spaces. Each one is different, depending upon the site. I look at the architecture, the lighting, the materials used in the walls and floors – all this determines the nature of the installation. I pay attention to the “theme” of the show. In Holland and Japan, I had a long wall in a high ceilinged, windowless room where I could work with the shadows by manipulating artificial lighting.
All artists strive for “originality” and in your case I find in particular the works making up Parade (2013) to be distinctively yours, and unique. They evoke Hieronymus Bosch for me. What artists have most influenced your work?
How do you answer that? I sometimes feel that I absorb everything, bouncing off moonlight rather than the rays of the sun. I’m a nocturnal person, attracted to edgy, secretive work. Bosch is an example, but so are the mythological aspects of Picasso – I love his sculpture – who is really a creature of the sun. Goya. Not Rembrandt. I’m not drawn to most sculpture, except for moving objects that amuse me, or present intellectual visualizations, or contemporary installations like the work of Ann Hamilton or Laurie Anderson. I’m probably mostly influenced by film, especially animation. Japanese animation for sure.
What has been your greatest success story to date?
Invitations to exhibit/residency in Nagoya, Japan, as part of the COP 10 conference on biodiversity, and to the 2010 Holland Paper Biennial, in two museums.
Is public feedback from the exhibition/publication of your work important to you? If so, how do you respond?
Not much. Once a work is done, I still love it, but abstractly.
What direction do you see your work going in the future?
I’m not sure. I’ve been exploring visual ideas of sustainability, migration, mutation, transformation for a good while now. I seem to accept that we as a species are destroying the planet and just keep going on. Right now, I’m obsessing about a second novel. We’ll see.