ACTIVATING PERCEPTION - NINA A. ISABELLE
MIDTOWN ARTS DISTRICT
by Debra Bresnan
May 10, 2017
When did you first know you were an artist?
Growing up people referred to me as an artist and so I became one – an experience that made me aware of the power of language, perception, belief, and social programming, all themes in my current work. It’s possible that if I had grown up in a different environment I might have been an engineer because as an artist I’m always working with how things like concepts of memory and phenomena articulate with visual and spatial perception, language, materials, and meaning and how to build generative dialogue between these factors. Where an engineer might work with materials, data, or electricity, as an artist I use a similar approach but with different variables.
Favorite medium(s) you use to make art?
My favorite art medium is probably the phenomena of perception and how language builds reality.
Right now my focus is on working to manipulate and bend notions surrounding the value and usefulness of art away from commodity and towards structures that represent essential and social value. Inside of this, working with painting I can still have an intention to study gesture, motion, and look for new languages that might emerge from this action and mark making or find new information in whatever emerges.
I like to get my hands on chunks of materials like vats of clay, lumber, bolts of fabric, or discarded machine parts and sort of grapple with the stuff until it gives in to another form. Sometimes I might start out with an intention or give myself an assignment, but other times I let myself generate information by engaging with materials and paying close attention as I go.
Since I work pretty equally with photography, video, design, performance, installation, and painting, nothing is really off limits to me. I grew up at a summer camp for kids where we had an arts and crafts department with a ceramics studio, photo lab, leather tools, batik, enamels, silk screens, and fabric dye, among others. Nine months out of the year these departments were vacant and I really made the best of it – I learned to use the kiln and glazes by haphazardly blowing up and melting a lot of stuff, mixing chemistry by taste, a lot of other experimental and dangerous learning-by-doing that has carried over to my current approach. I never read instructions as a younger person because I couldn’t really read until I went to college. I’m rarely intimidated by new things, and I think that’s one of my favorite things about my development and approach.
What are the most interesting new trends in your field? Is your work changing as a result?
One of the most exciting things I notice right now is a shift toward recognizing the social value of art as a tool to reframe reality through community building, open sourcing ideas and data, and through things like artist collectives and working together with other artists and community members. In the art world, there are always these superficial fads like geometric shapes or graffiti, or some new trendy material, or something everyone is doing like such-and-such, but my work doesn’t usually wind up aligning itself with those sorts of cultural flows. I don’t usually find myself in trendy circles — something that has made it difficult to find a community but also has led me to the point where I am now. I recognize that, all along, my running mission has been to challenge outmoded institutional and economic systems that have grown regulated and insular and to work to build systems to replace these. Artists are always pressing hard against hierarchal structures like gender, race, and social class: It seems like the discord generated by our new political administration is influencing a lot of art thinking these days.
Talk about your creative process – where/when do you get most of your ideas and how do you know a piece is ‘finished’?
My creative process is rooted pretty firmly in letting myself respond instinctively. One thing I often find myself doing is trying to destroy rosy notions that abound around creativity being “beautiful.” Being a person who has given birth to babies I recognize the mess, blood, and pain that goes along with creativity. I have a lot of ideas and mostly I choose to go with the ones that make me laugh about myself or our collective idiocy. I also like to work with themes that irk me such as fake systems of legitimization we use to determine success, such as university degrees, financial values and the gender and power imbalances that seem to perpetually skew the art world.
Making art objects like paintings and sculptures, and grappling with material and concepts together, I’ve questioned the point of it beyond decoration or commodity and have come to understand my process as a personal tool that lets me understand reality in a way that I can integrate. Working with materials and visual information puts me in touch with deeper threads of meaning, and nuances of life that fortify the tapestry. I’m drawn toward this way of working and thinking because there seems to be something I can’t quite say in writing or speaking, something linear language can’t quite get at. I don’t know what it is yet and that’s what keeps me engaged.
As far as recognizing when something is finished, I think it’s just a matter of paying attention to a subtle feeling of “doneness,” or arriving at a comfortable stopping point or a feeling of resolve – like I’ve figured something out or said what I meant to say. Sometimes a stopping point might never come because maybe I’ve gone down on a dead-end path. I have a lot of projects in limbo because they’ve become overwhelming or I’ve lost interest, things I can always get back to at any point. And, in a quantum way, things can never be finished because time isn’t linear and there’s no such thing as an end point.
Do you also teach or are you strictly a creative artist? Who was your most influential mentor and why? How do you see the role of being a mentor? and why?
In the past, I’ve taught art classes like photography, modern dance, and painting or movement workshops. There is always a technical entry point where students spend time learning about say, the camera machine, visual mechanics, basic movement patterns, or just becoming familiar with materials, and this can be a fun and engaging way for people to come together. But I always want to move further into dialogue about how the usefulness of these art tools and practices can be more than a fun pastime or therapeutic hobby. Art offers invaluable ways to shift perception and find new vantage points.
As an artist, I collaborate with others in several capacities that seem more like mutual mentorship, where we share and build upon each other’s momentum and concepts. I’m not sure that I’ve ever fit the part of strictly a mentor to another, but I do recognize people who’ve inspired me. I had a couple high school teachers who helped me to evade attendance, something that in a typical case might not sound helpful, but I really recognize and value people who have taken risks in order to do the right thing morally. School is not a good place for all children.
I can’t say that I’ve ever had a strong relationship with an individual mentor, but something that intrigued me early on was finding and building obscure relationships between seemingly unrelated artists and their work. I remember wondering about Käthe Kollwitz’s Woman With Dead Child in relationship to Henry Moore’s sculptures and sheep sketchbook, and Jim Dine’s Robes. Somehow the similar volume expressed in these works was curious to me, possibly as a subconscious desire to connect the physical form of my body to their work because I’ve always been athletic. I was also intrigued by industrial design and how humans interact with tools and objects, especially mid-century chairs like the Eames Lounger and Bertoia’s designs as a framework for simultaneously supporting physical and thought forms together. So in a way, I’ve let this sense of wonder guide me.
What are you working on now?
For the past year, I’ve been working on a project called The Superfund Re-Visioning Project. It’s an experimental framework that aims to transform contaminated industrial sites recognized by The United States Government as Superfund Sites. In New York State there are 117 of these sites. I’m developing a project that aims to create a platform for artists and community members who might otherwise be marginalized by political and financial systems that typically deal with these sorts of remediation.
I’m also involved with an artist collective developed by IV Castellanos called The Feminist Art Group (F.A.G.) from Brooklyn, and plan to invite them to Kingston this summer for one of The Shirt Factory Open Studio events. Currently, I have a show at the new HiLo gallery space in Catskill and like to participate in local shows at The Old Glenford Church Studio. I think it’s great when things like The UNITY show curated by Sarah Carlson and Lisa Barnard Kelley between the artists at The Shirt Factory and The Lace Mill come together to fortify community connectedness. Upcoming, I have work being featured by The Unstitute in Catalunya, Spain and plan to do something fun at Paul McMahon’s Mothership Gallery this fall.
Recently my focus is moving into sound and auditory perception. I’ve become interested in digitally degraded sound snippets and obscuring auditory input to the point of noise in a way to find out what’s behind and within the experience of sound.
For more information about my work and listings of recent/current exhibitions, projects and collaborations, please visit www.ninaisabelle.com/cv.
How has being in Kingston enhanced/inspired your work? What do you like best about living in Kingston/being involved with MAD? How long have you been here?
Kingston has a lot to offer artists and community members and is building momentum as an arts-branded district. Recently we’ve seen several exciting places pop up like David Schell’s Green Kill, Rilley Johndonnell’s Optimism concept, Broadway Arts, The Art/Life Institute on Abeel Street, and Kingston High School Art teacher Lara Giordano, who is exhibiting student work at PUGG on Broadway. The surrounding landscape is diverse and inspiring conceptually because of the Hudson River waterways, The Catskill Mountains, The Ashokan Reservoir, and the surrounding forests, hiking, and rail trails. The Mid-Hudson Library system is phenomenal, and it’s easy to travel back and forth to New York City from Kingston. It’s great to have artist studio spaces like The Shirt Factory and The Lace Mill which offer affordable living spaces for artists, and especially new organizations like MAD that are forming to support this new movement.