Our art editor Mike Sweeney recently had this exchange with Rose B. Simpson, our Issue #26 featured artist. Here’s what she had to say about her relationship to vulnerability and power, the importance of intention in creating her pieces, and her desire to honor (often overlooked) objects.
I’d like to start off by talking about specific pieces featured here in Mud Season Review. In an interview with Chiaroscuro Contemporary Art, you discuss the meaning behind “Beholding Contradiction” as your exploration of the state of being balanced and staying in a place of not seeing things as black and white. Can you share more of the philosophy behind this piece with our readers?
The philosophy behind “Beholding Contradiction” is about having the capacity to see the world (or others) for ALL that they are, not just falling into “good” or “bad,” or “with me” or “against me.” This has been one of the hardest things to do in my life, to hold the ones I love in a vision of the entire grayscale, knowing that they aren’t just one thing or another, that they have the capacity to be all things—from dark to light. This applies to the larger world as well, finding the “yeah but…” moment when I think I have a final answer. Allowing myself to see the full spectrum of the world around me also allows me to see those things within myself. Seeing my entire spectrum gives me strength to forgive and hold my dichotomies carefully and consciously so that I may continue my growth.
In a recent presentation published online, you talk about your warrior sculptures: you note that your warriors carry no weapons, but rather carry empowerment in a different way—an empowerment that comes from opening your eyes and feeling closer to one’s intimate and vulnerable self. Can you expand on this for our readers and specifically in the context of the pieces featured here in the journal?
The large piece, “Warrior,” I made as (yet another) self-portrait. I made it larger-than-life, and as clay does, it shrank to be exactly my height, 5’8”. When the clay figure comes out of the kiln, it is a raw expression of simple clay with black and white slip adornment. I set the figure up in my studio and began to meditatively proceed to adorn it with “energy.” I did this by working with either made or found objects and taking time to lash pieces together or tie them helter-skelter, but focusing very intently on every small portion of the surface of the piece. Each wrap of string done with intention, each small bead rolled and formed in my hands, carries the intention that I hold in my psyche. This, I believe, transfers into the object and then is given to the larger sculpture. The addition of hundreds of tiny “moments” turns into a large object of strong intention. This is power. There may not be actual weapons lashed to the piece, but the amount of included intention turns the piece into something that cannot be a victim; it becomes a warrior of consciousness just by existing in its power. (This may be why, on pieces such as “Warrior,” it is difficult to work with others or collaborate with someone who doesn’t understand that it is not “what” but “how” it is being created that is the most important thing.)
You speak about intention in your work, and as a viewer, I would say that there is a strong feeling of intention that comes through in each piece – in the markings in the clay, the placement of the materials. Can you speak to that intention and what it means to you as an artist? And what do you draw on to bring yourself to that moment of intention when you’re creating a piece?
I have always believed that matter has memory. Not only does it memorize experiences, but it also is influenced by those experiences—it can transform itself according to the external influence. A spiritual center that was built with love is a building that feels different inside than something that was built quickly, such as a McMansion. Old tools that have been used for decades feel differently in our hands than a brand new tool from Home Depot. Considering this, I make an effort to instill my work with intention—it is, again, not WHAT I am creating but HOW I create it that makes it what it is. What looks like rough or raw work in clay is partly part of that theory—I used to polish surfaces so that it looked like what I thought people wanted it to look like; then I realized I wanted people to see the process of making. I wanted them to see that in the process is the moment when the intention gets imbued into the matter of the object. I want it to remind people that every day we are creators of our realities through our intentions.
In the same vein, I’m interested in the process of how you worked to make the clay almost paper-thin before working with it and how you come to gather and place the found object materials in these pieces. Can you take us through that process a bit?
When I was in graduate school at the Rhode Island School of Design, I had the opportunity to deconstruct one of my biggest judgments—that I had to make things look “acceptable,” meaning slick, clean, flawless, desirable. I realized that part of creating was so miserable to me I would become physically ill when it came time to “fix” my piece. I decided to create a way of building that actually made it impossible to “fix” anything, where the process of making was the thing that was inevitably seen; there would be nothing to hide. This was really scary for me. I did this by throwing slabs of clay sideways against a flat surface over and over again until it was almost paper-thin. It was then torn into irregularly shaped pieces and applied to the form to create the piece. Working this way forced me to build the work in almost one sitting because the clay is too thin to be re-wet without collapsing, and it is so thin it dries quickly, so there is a very small window of time where another piece of clay can be added. I also have to let it dry quickly in order to be strong enough to hold up the next layer of clay, which forces me to continue building without being able to go back and “fix” anything later. It is what it is. This was really scary at first, but I have come to love the freedom, compassion, and forgiveness that happens when a sculpture becomes itself and I can look at it and see it for its raw and beautiful self.
Found objects are things that call to me and say, “I am special, I want to be seen as special.” I bend down, pick up the rusty washer, and say, “You are so beautiful, I am going to honor your life.” I’m still not sure if found objects are things I find or things that find me.
With the sculptures, you worked with this paper-thin, fragile clay, and then in another project, you completely restored and created an art piece out of a well-known muscle car (the El Camino). This juxtaposition between such fragile and such powerful materials is striking. Can you speak to this from the perspective of the experiences of working with such wholly different material and how that shapes your expression in the different pieces?
I think that being an artist, or maybe just being human, has a lot to do with vulnerability. Working with a fragile medium such as clay conveys that direct relationship to vulnerability. Muscle cars are about vulnerability as well. As a human, I often feel the need to recognize power and strength in myself, and I do this by creating things that are fragile and honest and lovable, and by creating experiences that make my body feel unstoppable. I love to drive, and I love to drive fast. I love the feeling of power, and from my most vulnerable and small and insecure places, I want to be behind the wheel of something so fast and loud and powerful. I project. Projecting onto something that badass makes me feel badass. It is a phase, and it’s about fear and freedom and mostly about self-love. I have also not had very high self-esteem, and I build my self-worth based on what I can do with my two hands. Doing a big-block engine swap in the middle of the night all by myself with a bunch of ratchet straps and come-alongs and chains and lifts, the next morning adjusting the carburetor all exhausted with bloody knuckles, I couldn’t feel any higher and happier. I look at my muscle car and tell myself: this chick did that.
Your work has been described as signifying the constant struggle between the two worlds that most modern indigenous peoples survive through: the traditional and the colonist perspective/assimilation. You recently curated an exhibit at the Pomona College Museum of Art in Claremont, California that featured your clay sculptures integrated with pieces from the museum’s collection of Native American art. Can you talk about that experience and the larger experience of working at the intersection of those two worlds?
The show at Pomona College Museum was a pretty amazing experience, because it deconstructed some judgments that I have about “white boxes.” The curator, Kathleen Stewart Howe, was incredibly brave in challenging some ideas of Western culture’s patronizing attitude toward indigenous peoples. I mined their basement collection of indigenous artifacts, an extensive array of donated pieces from many collectors and grave robbers. I had two goals: to deconstruct our mainstream idea of what is valuable, indigenous work, and to challenge our humanity at the same time by asking why we humans feel as if we can colonize not only people and cultures, but the many facets of our planet as well. Instead of picking the amazing beadwork, elaborate pots, or fancy rugs in their collection, I dug through the stones and tools, honoring the humanity of their direct and intimate relationship with the ancestors themselves. I did this by asking which rock, which stick, which tool, which pot, wanted to share their story with the larger world. I realized that this asking is what is missing in colonization. I recently had someone approach my child and ask me first: “Can I touch your baby?” and after I nodded, she asked my baby if she could touch her too. My baby may not have understood her and may not have been able to respond, but it was the energy of respect that was the most important thing, and what made me trust this woman with my sacred baby. We have forgotten to ask. We have forgotten to ask trees before we cut them, people before we touch them, the earth before we plow her, clay before we form it. If there is no communication, no asking, and no listening, people get hurt. Earth gets hurt. Loved things get tossed aside and our value systems get cheapened by ideas instead of feelings.
After asking which objects wanted to be in the show, I made two monumental figures (taller than ten feet) out of clay, steel, leather, and found objects, that represented post-apocalyptic humanity (which also references that indigenous peoples are already living in a post-apocalypse). One of these figures has enormous wings, but instead of using them to fly above, it is reaching its hand into the earth. Both of these figures face a line of large clay masks on the wall that represent our ancestors, and they are all over grinding stones from the collection. These mask beings represent the work of creation, nourishment, the part of humanity that was forgotten in order to cause an apocalypse. May we remember our panhuman-indigeneity to the planet before we end it (without exploiting other cultures to do so…did you ask if that was all right?).
In listening to a presentation you gave earlier in 2016 about your artwork and the nature of risk taking, you spoke of growing up surrounded by artists in your family who made art to make a living and how, because of that, they needed to walk a fine line between creating art that was acceptable and appropriate, while also being honest. I think that’s an area of great importance for any working artist, whether visual artists, musicians, writers, etc. How do you, as a working artist, find that balance? And do you allow that need to walk that line to enter into your creations?
I think that the more I have confidence in my voice, the more people support it. When I doubt myself, that reflection is almost immediate. I do, however, understand that I cannot begin a successful conversation by slapping someone’s face. So being careful about what I say can actually go further. I have also found that making general statements can be more off-putting than making “I” statements. So I make work based on my own growth more than a statement of others, and I feel that people vibe with it better. I really appreciate having opportunities to make work that can push the boundaries of consumerism—such as installation work that goes into museum spaces. But often it ends the conversation once the show is over. If the work is ephemeral, it goes back into its parts and is no longer speaking the way it could be.
I happened to be in my gallery one day while my favorite piece was being sold. The gallery director asked me to come over and tell the interested party about the piece, so I did. After I was done, one of the buyers said, “No, that’s not what the piece is about.” I was so furious I had to leave. They bought the piece and took it away. My heart broke. Several years later the gallery director said that same couple had purchased another one of my pieces and asked me to go with him to install it at their house. I reluctantly agreed. They ended up being some of the coolest people, telling me about how living with the first piece changed their lives, about how it woke them up to something they weren’t seeing. I realized the work has a journey bigger than I can understand; they go out in the world as Trojan Horses with a message for people. Maybe the people I don’t agree with are the ones who really should have the work; otherwise I am just preaching to the choir. The work may be using me to create it, and if I feel I have any power over the process of life, I’m totally nuts. If I listen and create from a deeper and more faith-filled space, I may be surprised what I learn. The biggest risk may be letting go.
Throughout your interviews and articles, you speak a lot about empathy and reaching as many people as possible to help inspire greater empathy in the world. Can you share more on your goals for your art in this vein?
I feel that being too specific with my work can be alienating, but being incredibly personal is inclusive. There seems to be a sweet window of inclusivity/empathy. I try not to make my work too culturally specific so as not to encourage “othering.” Also, it seems the more honest I am with my personal story, the more I reach others who have similar experiences of simple humanity.
You come from a long line of female artists and makers, and you’ve spoken of growing up with women as the builders and the fixers of everything from the house to the car. I know you recently became the mother of a baby girl yourself. Any reflections on this new journey in terms of how it may impact your artwork in the context of you now being both daughter and mother?
My baby girl just turned 11 weeks old. She is very little and needs to eat and be doted on all day and night. As a single parent, it is the most challenging thing I’ve ever encountered. Mostly because I am a work addict, and she makes me take the time to care for her for hours, as she capitalizes on both of my arms and hands. I had plans to teach her fractions as soon as I could so that I could get her to hand me the 9/16 wrench when I’m under a car, but for some reason she looks really nice in pink and ruffles. I told myself it would probably be some sort of strange karma if she turned out a “girly-girl,” all purple and pink and glitter and sequins and princesses…but I think I am growing up. I look at her and know that I may be walking through the auto parts supply store covered in high temperature bearing grease and have my little sidekick trailing glitter while spinning in her tutu. And I will be so proud.
My mother raised her two children by herself, she built our house, she fixed the car. I grew up believing that was what women do. As I have become a mother and created a little girl, I think that belief is transforming into something bigger. I used to feel bad for baby girls; I used to think that they would only have to fight to be respected or happy in this world that is not made to love them, but these days I look at my little lump of girl eating from my breast and think: my gosh, we are magic. Our power is immense: we create life, we feel, we dream, we love, we manifest. I’m so proud to be the mama of a baby girl, and now I know my mama is proud of me too.