Our art co-editor Cynthia Close recently had this exchange with Sonja Hinrichsen, our Issue #19 featured artist and cover artist for our second print issue. Here’s what she had to say about how her art career took shape, the differences between art school in Germany and the U.S., and the logistics of creating and documenting her “Snow Drawings.”
You initially studied art in Germany as an undergraduate, about twenty years ago, and you specialized in installation art, performance, and video. What was it as a young artist that pulled you in this direction as opposed to majoring in the more traditional media of painting and sculpture?
Actually my major was in sculpture. However, I tended to be rather curious about new things. During my thirld year the class I was in didn’t have a permanent professor for a while, and the school hired an interim teacher who worked with us for a few months. He brought in a visiting artist who offered an introduction course in video. The art school had just bought a video camera – we used SVHS in Germany at the time. A monster of a camera, but it was rather professional in terms of its operation. Only two people showed up for the workshop, and I think in the end I was the only one left. I was used to professional still photography – my father taught me that at an early age – so shooting video came fairly easy to me. I liked the time aspect of it – the film aspect. I started integrating video into a lot of my projects. I had worked with projections before – using multiple slide projectors – so now I started using video projections. Some of my early video work included performances, where I was filming myself. I remember an early project where I covered my entire body in paint, then in mud.
About a year later the school hired NYC-based video and performance artist Joan Jonas to replace yet another retired professor. I changed into her class – officially this was still a sculpture class as the school didn’t have a video or performance department – except for a one-year program that art-education students could opt for after they had graduated with their major. This program came out of stage-theater, but evolved into video and performance over time.
Studying with Joan Jonas was eye-opening, and gave me a much broader sense of time-based media and installation.
In a sense I kind of happened to “fall into” video and installation – it wasn’t something I had anticipated when I first started art school. Not at all – I thought I’d become a sculptor, working with lots of materials, creating big permanent art pieces. Now my work is very immaterial – I use barely any traditional art materials at all. And most of my work is extremely ephemeral – nothing permanent whatsoever. My art career has often taken unexpected turns – this seems to be sort of a pattern for me. I am currently learning ceramics – which again came entirely unexpectedly and stands in stark contrast to my otherwise rather concept-driven work. Ceramics is all about technique, chemistry and experience. I have no idea why exactly I’m doing that – but I have learnt that it usually makes some sense for me to follow my intuitions.
You followed up with graduate work at the San Francisco Art Institute, where you specialized in video and video installation. Could you say something about the differences, pluses and minuses, between your art education in the U.S. and Germany?
Art school in Germany is much more self-directed than in the U.S. – from day one. Even first year students are expected to develop their own projects and execute them. Of course they will meet with their professors for critiques, but they are generally expected to work independently. They seem to be more mature and maybe a little older than first year students in the U.S. German art schools sometimes don’t like to accept students coming straight out of high school – they prefer candidates who have done something else first – for instance an apprenticeship with a sculptor, or an internship with a design firm, or even just traveled the world for a year. Or worked a job. Art programs are rather competitive in Germany. There aren’t anywhere as many art schools as in the U.S. All degree programs are public schools (federally funded). They are university level, but are run as separate schools. The application process is rather involved. Prospective students submit a portfolio of work samples. If their work makes it through this first round they are invited for a two- or three-day exam, where they are given several tasks – usually in painting, drawing and sculpture/3D work, and an oral exam or a discussion before a committee of professors. This is for the professors to get a sense whether the applicant is serious about becoming an artist and why they are choosing this career, and also to test their knowledge of contemporary art – and last but not least to decide whether the candidate might be a good match for the school. This was the process when I applied for art school, anyway – it might have changed since, I don’t know. Basically it was a similar process as applications for graduate programs in the US. Only that this was for undergrad first year.
Another difference is that in Germany students are assigned to a class and work primarily with one professor. Typically class assignment happens in conversation between students and professors. While I was in art school this system started breaking up a little – at least at my art school – and we would go and get critiques from other professors as well. I have no idea if they still have these class assignments today.
U.S. art schools, on the other hand, are more structured. Due to the way they are set up, in accordance with the academic model – critique seminars, tutorials, theory classes and skill-based classes – there is generally more interaction between students and their teachers/professors, as well as among students. In my experience this leads to more discussion and critical thinking, and ultimately to a greater focus. I think students work harder, are more ambitious – and this might well also be a result of the high tuitions they pay. They want to get the most out of their program. (I’d say this is probably the only positive byproduct of the astronomical tuitions students pay in the U.S.). In Germany we were much more relaxed and took things slower. Most of us stayed in undergrad for ten semesters at least, some longer. You had certain benefits in society being a student. It wasn’t a bad thing being in school for five or six years. A lot of us worked jobs and simply took school at a slower pace. I liked the intensity of my grad program in the U.S., but also liked to have all that freedom to “play” in Germany.
I appreciate that I had the opportunity to study art in Germany (undergrad) as well as in the U.S. (grad school). And I feel especially lucky every time I hear other artists express their concerns about tuitions and student loans they need to pay back. Just like any higher education, art school was free in Germany. (I think they have since introduced tuition, but it’s very little, doesn’t compare to tuitions at U.S. schools at all).
The site work artist(s) Christo and Jean-Claude come most immediately to mind when I think about other artists who may have influenced you. They speak extensively about the long, arduous process of obtaining all the legal permits required to do large installation pieces that involve access to other people’s land and buildings. They have included this process in the documentation of their work. Have you had to deal with such mundane and often dicey matters, and if so how did you go about it?
My Snow Drawings work does require a lot of logistics and preparations weeks or months in advance – however by no means to the same degree as Christo and Jean-Claude’s work. It took them decades to get permission to wrap the Reichstag in Berlin. For me it’s not really so much about permissions, but rather about locating ideal places where I can do this work, and then finding local organizations and individuals willing to support the project logistically, promote it in their communities, and help round up tools we might need – such as snowshoes. I have worked with art as well as environmental organizations, public libraries, and a lot of energetic individuals who just simply liked the idea and wanted the project to happen in their community. A few of my Snow Drawings projects were on invitation, where an arts organization, a community/town, a museum, and in one case a National Park (Denali in Alaska) invited me to come and do a project with their communities. These are of course much easier, as the host takes on a lot of the logistical work – such as PR, finding a suitable location, hiring a drone person for video documentation, and a pilot or helicopter for my aerial photos. While I could of brought my own drone from somewhere like https://www.drdrone.ca/ and taken the photos myself, I normally leave it to the professionals. For those invitational projects, I am in conversation mostly just with the local organizer and handle everything through them.
One tricky thing is finding locations that are safe from snowmobiles. Those can destroy a beautiful pristine snow surface within seconds. This past winter one of my works was destroyed by a snowmobile – in a protected area where snowmobiles are not allowed (and would pay a significant fine if they were caught). The person came on the second day of the project while we were working on another clearing a few miles further up a forest road. They ran right through the center of the snow drawings. I am not sure if this was targeted vandalism or if this person just simply had no clue what they were doing. It can be difficult to see the Snow Drawings from ground level, as the patterns are so large. It’s a similar effect as a fly that has landed on a Persian carpet. The fly can’t see the patterns on the carpet. It needs to “take off” first to get a better vantage point. So that snowmobiler might not have been aware what they were doing until it was too late. (Yet it’s no excuse, as they weren’t supposed to be in that area in the first place).
Usually my planning phase begins around late summer for the following winter. Sometimes I have already been in conversation with someone through a contact made earlier, and I try to get back in touch at that time. Some of the projects are repeat projects – meaning at locations or with communities I have worked with before. Those are easier logistically, as we have already worked together and can plan a larger project and/or focus on improving or adjusting certain aspects of the project based on the previous experience. One such repeat location is Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where I have done several Snow Drawings projects – I think four at this point. It’s really amazing working with the people there, as they are enthusiastic and at this point things work really smoothly, as we have gathered so much experience.
As for permits, I have so far been able to avoid dealing with that. My Snow Drawings and other site-specific works have so far always happened on land that’s either privately owned (but open to the public) and we have been able to get permission from the owner, or public land where no special permit was required. One piece for instance happened on the lands of a UC Berkeley field station (in the Sierra Nevada). Some of the Snow Drawings were on invitation, for instance by the National Park Service (Denali in Alaska), a ski resort in France, an art park in New York. So land use was no issue there either.
Environmental concerns are themes that run through your work. You mention that you are “not interested, however, in creating lasting artworks, as I believe that our planet is over-saturated with man-made products.” While I agree with you, I confess it was the aesthetic image of your “Snow Drawings” which stimulated my desire to “own” a piece of your work. Can you speak to this relationship between the visual record of your work as opposed to the actual activity that produced it?
The event of making, the creative process itself is the most important component of this project. It happens in a huge collaborative effort, and the main goal or idea for me as an artist is to provide to the community a unique experience that involves both community building and – even more importantly – an immersive nature experience. It’s very special being out there in the snow, walking patterns for hours on end – out in a large open area or somewhere far out on a snow-covered lake. The walking becomes meditative, especially with the spiral shapes that I use a lot – participants can let go and immerse themselves in the landscape. It’s different from skiing or even hiking, where one would just pass through the landscape as opposed to letting it sink in for a long time.
There have actually been pieces that never got documented, because it snowed overnight and the patterns got covered up completely. However, while the images are lost, the piece/the experience is not, as it continues on in the memories of those who participated in them.
That said, I do value the documentation and spend a lot of time, effort, and sometimes money on making sure it can be done well. I usually have someone fly me over the finished work, so I can photograph it from an airplane or helicopter. And I also try to have a least one drone videographer on site during the event. If I’m lucky I find community volunteers who are willing to donate their time and equipment (recreational pilots, drone-imaging companies or individuals), but I have also had to pay for this sometimes, especially with some of the projects that are self-organized (not on invitation). However, the images and video are super important, because they are the only way this work can travel out into the world – and it does tend to do that, especially online via social media, blogs, art and culture websites – but also through art shows, magazines and sometimes inclusion in books. While my participants receive a very special firsthand experience, I do believe that the documentation of the work can speak to a larger audience as well, and that the images and video have the power to arouse consciousness and appreciation for nature – and make people understand or feel how precious these natural environments are, and how important it is that we preserve them. To be able to convey this message my image material needs to be aesthetically beautiful and attractive – or evoke curiosity. Sometimes people don’t quite know what they are looking at first – especially if they look at one isolated image that has little or no landscape context. My experience is that people are stunned or surprised and want to find out more, see more, etc.
And yes, the prints (archival pigment prints) of the works are for sale. They are limited editions, and can help finance new projects. I wish for people to own them, put them up in their living space and look at them every day. This is part of the overall goal with this project.
The Snow Drawings project has been carried out at eight different sites from 2009 to 2014 in Colorado, New York, and two locations in France. They involved your collaboration with hundreds of individuals. Can you describe the steps you take to create this work physically? How do you solicit volunteers?
I don’t know if I have done a total of eight projects. That might be the number of those posted on my website, but there are several projects that have not been publicly released – meaning I have not published or shown the images and video yet. I did five new projects this past winter alone. There are a couple others that haven’t been released.
The works are created entirely in the process of making – so there is no preconceived pattern that I sketch or lay out beforehand. Most of the designs rely on a patterns system that I relate to my participants on site. I usually give a public talk the night before, for those who are interested in seeing previous works and hearing more about it. Then in the morning I give a short intro on site where I explain to all participants the overall concept and the pattern system we are working with. I have used spiral shapes a lot of times, because they lend themselves really well. They are fairly easy to do for anyone – even people who have never walked with snowshoes before – while at the same time they leave room for some experimentation (different sizes and denser spirals vs. spirals made up of wider tracks, spirals turning left vs. right) and also further interpretation. Some people have walked elaborate spirals that had spirals within spirals, or spirals surrounded by smaller spirals etc. When this happened the first time, it came completely unexpectedly – now I encourage my participants to do that if they like – or to just stick to the simple spiral form – whatever they prefer and feel confident doing. I don’t want anyone to be intimidated. Sometimes people are worried they might “mess up my piece”, which is very unlikely to happen – unless someone intentionally wants to mess it up. As of yet this has never happened.
Also spirals are an ancient form that occurs in nature over and over, and is part of us, too. (Seedpods grow in spirals, water drains in a maelstrom/spiral, certain seashells are spiral-shaped, human embryos are curled up like a spiral, our finger print is sort of a spiral, our galaxy is a spiral.) Everyone is familiar with spirals and knows how to draw (or walk) them – I feel like they are inherent in us.
I usually have some pencil drawings with me on site to give people a visual image, and also to explain how to connect from one spiral to the next and to the next and so on. Then I send people out in the “field” (or frozen lake). I usually split them into groups of five to ten people. Each groups enters the “field” from a different location – for instance along the shoreline of the lake, so that we can start the drawing from several sides at once. After that I have no more direct control. I have to rely on my participants and their interpretation of the instructions I have given them.
There are also two projects – both on Lake Catamount in Colorado – where we tried to “recreate” – in an abstracted way – the flow of a former river that once meandered through that valley before the reservoir lake was there. One of those projects is on my website, the other hasn’t been released yet. For these pieces I held a movement workshop the night before where I analyzed with some people how water flows and how we can express that through our walking patterns. In the morning of the event we communicated the essence of this workshop to the participants. It worked really well, people were able to internalize the idea to move through the valley on their snowshoes as though they were a drop of water – in meanders, in swirls, straight and fast, “flopping” around in shallow eddies….
In terms of soliciting volunteers: I always work with local organizations – usually a local arts council, a nature organization, a public library, a museum, an art foundation, in France the municipality of a ski area and the ski company. They help me promote the project and set up a way for participants to sign up. And a lot of times there are also a handful of amazing and super-dedicated community members who help organize and solicit volunteers as well.
Do you keep in touch with any of the participants who have volunteered in the making of your work? Has their involvement changed their lives in any way that you know of?
Through online signup and signup sheets that we have at the events I tend to be able to stay in touch with most of my participants. I create an email list for each project and update the participants after the event, tell them about progress with images and video etc. Last winter the San Francisco PBS station covered my project in the Sierra Nevada – and of course I want to let my volunteers know once that gets aired on TV.
I get a lot of positive feedback from participants. People tell me that it was a unique experience they will always remember. Sometimes people from elsewhere email me through my website contact to tell me that they rounded up their kids and their neighbors and created their own snow drawing in a big field where they live. They tell me it was fun and gave them a whole new idea for a winter activity. One time a woman sent me a photo of a dress where she embroidered a pattern inspired by one of my Colorado Snow Drawings pieces.
Since selling tangible works of art at astronomical prices at Christie’s or Sotheby’s is not your goal, you’ve turned to residencies in order to survive as an artist. I was very impressed with your long list of artist residencies, in many different countries, nearly every year from 1996 to the present. Can you address the role that these residencies have played in your career?
The artist residencies really helped kick-start my artist career, as they provided me space to create work – space in the sense of studio space that otherwise I would not have been able to rent, as well as space in the sense of amazing environments where I was able to create site-specific work (mostly performative, not so much in the sense of a permanent sculptural installation). There was a period of time – several years actually – when I didn’t have a permanent living space. Instead I was basically “hopping” from artist residency to artist residency, and every time I would be back in the SF Bay Area for a few weeks or months I rented a temporary living space, or lived with friends who had an extra room at the time. Saving rent during artist residencies helped me make time for my artwork, instead of having to work jobs. And some artist residencies provided a stipend for food and materials. I also had some savings, which helped, too. I lived very frugally – and still do – but this allows me to dedicate myself to my artwork. Now I live in Oakland, sharing an apartment with a roommate, to keep it affordable. I do have to work some jobs now, but am still mainly an artist. However, this does require a simple lifestyle. There are a lot of things most people would take for granted that I can’t afford. However, I am happy, and I can be an (almost) full-time artist. That is very valuable to me.
What aspect of your work do you find the most challenging?
The most challenging in terms of the Snow Drawings project is to find new locations and to locate people or organizations who are able and willing to support my project in those locations – I don’t necessarily mean support in a financial sense (although that would be awesome ,of course), but rather just to help me facilitate it (promote it to their community, find an appropriate spot for the project, help me find volunteers who might be able to donate aerial photography/video, help find a host where I can stay, etc… ). It usually works best if I have a recommendation through someone – another artist or just a community member who knows people. For the Sierra Nevada project last winter, for instance, an artist friend who teaches at the University of Nevada in Reno suggested that I contact the director of the environmental arts department of the Nevada Art Museum. He liked my project and put me in touch with a UC Berkeley biology research station that administers land near Lake Tahoe. They were very interested in the project and also brought the Truckee Public Arts Council on board. So the ball started rolling really only from one contact – and the project happened and was a great success.
Do you think it’s possible for an artist to juggle family successfully with a career?
It seems to work for some people – and I can only admire them. Personally I can’t imagine how that would work for me. I would have to adjust my work processes considerably – actually probably abandon certain projects altogether. Snow Drawings for instance requires me to travel quite a bit. Last winter I was “on the road” for seven weeks. It was sort of a little art tour to four different locations throughout the U.S. Other environment-based projects have emerged during artist residencies. I have no idea how I would be able to be away from home so much if I had kids. I think I just simply wouldn’t be able to do that and my artwork would have to be different.
What works are you now planning for the future?
There are several different things and projects in planning right now. I got invited for a workshop in Spain led by a former professor of mine (Joan Jonas, my teacher at art school in Germany). I don’t exactly know what this project will be, but I’m very excited about it. I assume it will be a collaborative group project with her, and each artist will also work on individual projects – or maybe the individual projects will become part of the overall project? I’m leaving for Spain in a couple of weeks and am definitely excited.
Then in September/October I will be going to an artist residency in the Adirondacks in NY. It’s a program that focuses primarily on artists who address social justice and/or environmental subject matters in their work. I’m excited about that, too. I proposed a “Living off the Land Project”, another participatory project where I forage edible plants that grow in the wild. I make dishes with them and create events around them, often involving food-tasting, or a potluck (sometimes in a specifically created setting), information about the plants, and sometimes video.
Mid/late summer is typically also the time when I start planning new Snow Drawings projects, meaning for early 2017. That’s when I reach out to prospective people and organizations– both for projects at places I have been to before and for new locations.
And then, last but not least, I am working on the image materials from last winter. The post-production phase for my Snow Drawings projects is very involved and extremely time-consuming, especially when I create several projects per winter. With five new projects last winter I have thousands of photos and hundreds of video files to work with. It will take me quite a while to publish these works.