Artist Shannon Estlund speaks with fellow Rosalux member artist Rebecca Krinke about the importance of keeping journals, human permeability, and the profound influence mysterious dreams have had on her life and work.
How have you been doing? How has COVID, the struggle for racial justice, the election, and all of 2020 been affecting your life and your studio practice?
Contemporary life in the US is in utter turmoil. These are terrifying times and yet there’s also the hope of great transformation, so we’re very much on edge. I’m fortunate to have a job, but my sister and my best friend have gone through furloughs and layoffs, and I don’t think there are many of us who have not been changed by this last year. I know I have changed tremendously, both through the isolation of Covid and the uprising for justice in Minneapolis, and around the country and world.
I know you as a gallery artist working primarily in sculpture and installation, but I know your work also spans landscape architecture. How do you define your current practice? Have you always been interested in sculpture and installation? What was the process of finding your artistic path? Did you consider other professions or mediums?
I see my artistic practice operating between and among sculpture, installation, site works, and public participatory projects both inside and outside. I have an undergraduate degree in landscape architecture and that’s what I teach. But it was during my first job as a landscape architect where I had a dream -a really potent dream unlike any other I had had up to that point. The dream contained an animal presence, a bed, the night, a view out a window, and a snowstorm. After that dream I felt a clear directive -a clear decision that I wanted to make a bearskin rug out of aluminum foil.
I made a whole body of work out of aluminum foil at night after working during the day as a landscape architect. I had a roommate who was going to MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies in photography and wanted to photograph my work. He said it was really good and suggested that I should submit it for an art award in Boston. So we did that and I was one of the winners, which was of course deeply surprising to me. I ended up going to graduate school at Mass College of Art in Boston for sculpture.
Shannon: Tell me more about teaching landscape architecture. This seems like it must influence your artistic practice?
Sometimes my art and landscape architecture has felt like parallel tracks but it is on the verge of intersecting deeply. That’s the sensation I have. I teach studio classes in landscape architecture that are not so different from art studio courses. My students are graduate students and they're deepening their insight into their personal sensibilities, while learning how to see, describe, and make space, especially outdoor space. My students are amazing and inspire me deeply.
Are they making drawings or physically building the spaces?
No, we're not landscape contractors. But some students do volunteer work or activist work where they may be engaged in physical landscapes -such as in helping with community gardens or ecological restoration efforts, or any number of things. We might do a full scale mock-up of an idea outside on site which helps teach scale. They do make physical models, and all sorts of sculptural experiments, and work in analog, digital, and hybrid ways. The studio I'm teaching now is called “Making Space for Emotion: Gardens of Pain and Joy”. This focus on the emotional and intuitive (and we might argue female), is not the typical studio, and demonstrates how my artistic practice and my design experience offers something different to the students.
Yeah, that sounds like it's not a client driven kind of project.
Not client driven at all. Graduate school in design focuses on what your driving questions are. How do you want to work? What difference do you want to make in the world? It's important to teach to the big vision. I think good teachers help students find the seeds to their life work. That’s what I aspire to. Some questions we think about are: how do we consciously make spaces to embody or evoke human emotion? The ecological crisis, and the fight for racial, social, and economic justice are felt individually and collectively and are all interrelated. There is so much deep pain and grief. And we often repress that or don’t know where to go or what to do with these emotions. My teaching and my own artistic practice are seeking to explore this, and offer new kinds of spaces about this.
I am curious about your studio life. Many of your works are massive. What is your studio like? What does a studio day look like for you?
I am fortunate to have a studio, through the university, where I teach. A studio day is generally fit in between teaching and academic duties, or on the weekend, although lately the studio hasn’t always been accessible due to Covid. I have been working in my house and yard like many other artists. I’m in a show right now where I was able to work in the gallery and use it like a studio to make a site-specific installation over a couple months.
Do you spend a lot of time journaling and drawing, or do you like to work directly with materials?
Both. I have kept the same kind of black bound notebook since I was a teenager. They are mostly writing, but also ideas for art and also include photos or imagery taped or stapled into them. The minute I make one idea physical I see new avenues. For example, this show I have up right now, is already changing me and helping me think and move into some different territory. I also read voraciously across disciplines and I love to read novels. I read all over the place and it’s joyous research for me. So with my hybrid ways, I'm an explorer, which is what I think most artists are.
So do you start with a concept and then move into materials?
Both are intertwined. To manifest a sculpture, to me, is to integrate intuition, emotion, conceptual thinking, and physical making. As you know, I have made a series of bed sculptures and those beds had content on so many levels, but they also had fabrics and other materials that started to really appeal to me. Curtains have become increasingly interesting to me. The bed sculptures that used 4-poster beds were surrounded by curtains, and I've also used curtains to separate my work, to place the bed in a separate deep dark space within the larger gallery space.
In the show I’m in now, I've got these dark green curtains that are creating a room within a room and they also remind me of hedges. My next show will be in a space with tall ceilings, and I want to work intently with the vertical volume of the space through these dark green curtains. Almost like an underwater kelp forest perhaps, a feeling of being submerged in a dream. And, you know, I suppose that comes from the octopus dream I had recently and working with the green curtains. So it’ s both concept and materials, united. That’s what I love about sculpture - each time, you just never know what you are going to use or need in your work. I feel and think my way at different times in the process.
Dreams are so important to your practice. What do you think dreams are?
Good question. I don't think there is a definitive answer. There's a lot of unknown around why we sleep and dream. Dreams can be seen as a biological function, the personally psychological, a part of collective consciousness, as mystical or prophetic, and in many other ways. So I view dreams as beautiful and mysterious gifts. A mystery that comes in to you, but they can pack a lot of truth.
As a terrible and poignant example of this, I had a dream of someone being sexually attacked at the exact time this was happening to a friend of mine. I found this out later, after I had been having these dreams for two nights, and when I learned this, then the dreams stopped. So, I think as humans, we're much more permeable than we think.
I've also asked dreams for advice. While I was working on my last show for Rosalux, I asked for a dream to tell me what I should put inside the bed canopy netting that hung above the mirror. I knew I wanted to embed something in the sculpture that you'd only see in the mirror. I had three things clearly told to me. I woke up a little bit while I dreamt it, so I could remember. I was grateful, and I wrote them down, and I tried to work with them. But, then I realized it doesn't have to be literal, it was more about the past. So I used a different way of referring to the past. I used one of my very early artworks up there.
And what was that object?
It was a sculpture of a bear paw made of aluminum foil. You could only see it in the mirror, not inside the sculpture itself. So, in my experience, dreams can offer answers, insights, marvelous places and experiences, and also the terror of linking you to another [person] in their pain. So they are many things and an ongoing mystery.
But I think you have to cultivate that right? Because plenty of people don't remember their dreams, or don't pay much attention to them, or just think of them as side effects of the brain processing and extraneous bits of memory coming through. So I think that it's something you have to practice paying attention to.
What we put our attention on grows, as a famous quote by someone says, and I think this is true. My art started with a pretty powerful dream, so that had my attention. I was already keeping notebooks, and if you keep notebooks, you will remember your dreams more. You get in the habit of catching them. And they're just so damn interesting -these cities and places I could never draw or imagine and I'm walking through them! It's like alternate realities. I just think humans are much more permeable and, maybe, I'm more permeable or I have cultivated permeability.
Yeah, they are so interesting. Is the writing in your notebooks a disciplined practice? Do you have a certain time of day that you do it?
No, I don't like to have any rules. Okay, my rule is no rules. One joy of being a teacher, you can seek to help students unlearn. I'll use my notebooks for really hybrid purposes -sometimes for writing down things about teaching as well as recording my dreams, or something more personal. They're a repository and archive.
Well, before we move on from notebooks, I'm curious, do you reference your notebooks later?
As far as going back and re-reading them, no, but sometimes I page through them and look at my sketches or what imagery I have pasted in there. I put the start date in the front and the end date in the back. The notebooks have moved from personal process to material presence in my sculpture -but always inaccessible to a reader. They have moved around from under a bed, to under a desk, to on top of the desk, embodying different relationships with secrets.
Every so often, I open up an old notebook and read something at random. And it can often be an uncanny experience. I remember looking at a page from years where I was describing a dream I had where I was gluing black feathers to the bottom of an upturned boat. That was like a decade before I'd had a dream about the bird and was using black feathers.
I sometimes have mulled over that if I took one thing from each notebook and then made some kind of collected text or image piece from them, it could be interesting, for me at least. You know, we think or feel we're so permanent, but we're so fluid and malleable. I’m not the same person of earlier notebooks. I think this helps me as a teacher to embrace change. This practice of being creative, and being a maker takes courage. No one ever told me that. But that's the truth of it. Art is going into the unknown and it’s going to be uncomfortable at times, but I think that is when we are onto something.
Right, yeah. It's so reassuring to hear someone say that's part of the process.
That's just the reality of living. It’s wonderful and it's terrifying.
Recently you made a book, and often your works are site specific. How does photography factor into your practice?
I did recently make an artist book with the help of some of my graduate students. What the book did was to have photographs of my sculpture, installed in galleries, “cut out” and then, through Photoshop, they were put into outdoor settings. Which, to my mind, made them even more strange and dream-like. I got to see my series of bed sculptures transported to fields, a frozen coastline, an abandoned parking lot, and more. These landscapes were places that I or my students had photographed. After making this book, I really felt like exploring more outdoor work. I have been experimenting with bed sculptures in my yard and other projects in my house and yard due to Covid. Thanks to the series of Rosalux online shows, I have been able to exhibit photographs of these installations, there.
We had an exhibition scheduled for October at Rosalux that has been put off indefinitely. How has your exhibition schedule changed, or stayed the same, in recent months? What projects do you have on the horizon? Has your deadline schedule changed?
I’m fortunate to be in a show right now at New Studio Gallery in St. Paul with two other women installation artists [Note: at the time of publication, the show has come down. It can be viewed online at www.newstudiogallery.com]. The exhibition is called “At This Point...Three Spaces for Contemplation”. My work is called “Space Without a Map,” which embodies my personal reality right now, and is part of our collective reality. We are in a liminal space of crisis and change that’s going on in my life and seemingly everyone’s lives right now, and is a time that also speaks to the possibility for transformation.
As far as upcoming opportunities, I’m excited that photographer Amy Ballinger and I will be the inaugural show at the New White Bear Center for the Arts building that will be completed next summer. I wish you and I could be planning for a show somewhere, too, right now, because I’m looking forward to learning from you and seeing our dark and mysterious work resonating together.
I am looking forward to that too! With your site-specific work, how much is pre-planned and how much are you creating on site?
Well, luckily for my past shows at Rosalux, my studio had the exact same ceiling height and design. But then I would take it to Rosalux and it would always need to be changed or adapted in some way. And the lighting is always so important and always a challenge. In my last show there, I had the work up and then I spent about five solid days trying to figure out how to light it. It finally came down to one light in the sculpture, one ceiling light, and one light under the desk. So it was reducing, reducing, reducing.
That was really effective though, because it really did create a different world. You walked through the curtains and the environment was completely immersive and unexpected.
That one really did surprise me too. And fellow Rosaluxers said that as well. I miss Rosalux! But we will return, and I'm excited for a new home base. If we choose a storefront space going forward, that would offer exciting new possibilities as I'm really involved with lighting, windows, layered opacities, and ideas and expression of inside-outside.
Your work is such a rich mixture of natural and cultural materials. How do you view the relationship between nature and culture in your work?
Nature and culture are really the same thing to me. One way of describing this paradox is that I find myself constantly going back and forth between things we can make as humans and things we can’t make, and finding gaps and relationships between.
What role does symbolism play in your work? Can you talk about some recurring symbols?
One way to talk about symbols would be the fact that my artwork, which began with the dream about an animal, the presence of a bear, fueled my first few bodies of work. They were explorations of the dream, and deeper layers of the dream experience through a sequence of materials. Then I had an important dream about frogs and transformation and I worked with human and frog forms and hybrid forms. Then there was a third dream where I was being initiated as some kind of bird "shaman” and the birds were raptors sitting on stands inside a dark interior space with other people gathered around. Recently I had a dream with an octopus which seemed to be beckoning me to go to deeper and to more primordial places. The show I am in now, at New Studio Gallery, is the first time that I’ve referenced all four of these dreams together, and they occupied different aspects of the space. I used the vehicle of clothing, a cloak form, to reference the first two dreams and they hang on on opposite walls. The third cloak, the feathered cloak is draped over a huge stack of my notebooks stacked high on a desk in front of a window. The octopus dream can be seen hovering faintly behind the window in a semi-translucent space. It speaks to the sensation I have right now of being in a space between worlds.
What artists inspire you enduringly? Is there an artist you’ve recently discovered? Where do you go to look at new work?
I often say that my work is about wonder and terror. There are two artists that are important touchstones for me -Louise Bourgeois for terror and Walter De Maria for wonder. Louise made deeply personal, emotional, pain-laden objects and interiors, and Walter made transcendent objects, spaces, and experiences such as “The Lightning Field”. Due to Covid, like everyone else, I’m looking at art online. The work Blane De St. Croix is doing with ideas of geology and materiality in sculpture, installation and collage attracts my interest.
What are your goals for the near future and long term? What have you found to be the most important lesson you have learned in your career in maintaining your studio practice?
My goals for the near future and longer term are to continue to enjoy exploring the unknown, typically an inner-related, psychological and spiritual process, and manifest that exploration in my art. I love making installations because I want to make the new world that I intuit. I want to see it and spend some time inhabiting it until the next world appears to me and I want to make that. It is so compelling to me to make these places that have never been seen before. Art reminds us that there is a mystery in the world, and mystery in our existence, that is both so wonderful and also so terrifying -that’s what it means to be alive. I think art can remind us of that. My art argues for exploring the edges of mystery via dreams, the dark, the female, and then non-rational in a society that upholds the rational as fact.
What have I found to be the most important lesson for maintaining a studio practice? Don’t get in your own way. Relax and let ideas, images, and the vision float in. And as it floats in, meet it halfway and work with it because it’s always a collaboration with mystery. That’s where the joy is.
Rebecca Krinke's practice exists across sculpture, interior installations, public art, site works, and social practice. She has exhibited her work indoors in gallery settings including BV Gallery, Bristol, England, Black Box Theatre Gallery, Galway, Ireland, Experiential Gallery, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA and outdoors including Franconia Sculpture Park and Silverwood Park. Rebecca has recently exhibited her installation, Space Without a Map, as part of the exhibition At this Point...Three Spaces for Contemplation at New Studio Gallery, in St. Paul, MN. You can see more of her work by visiting her website at www.rebeccakrinke.com