“My work tends to revolve around memory and landscape. More and more, it’s about how I remember landscapes, what I find beautiful in the landscape and why.”
Vanessa’s workspace is in her Oakland apartment in a neighborhood with tree-lined streets, where a pleasant, almost bucolic hush persists. Despite being a bit under the weather, she greeted us with warm enthusiasm and made sure to have some donuts on hand in case we had a mid-morning onset of hunger. I was excited to visit her and have the opportunity to further understand her process because conceptually it hadn’t completely come together for me— I needed to be walked through it and have her explain exactly how she goes about making the work she does. Essentially, Vanessa uses the silhouettes of small-scale models along with layered drawings on transparent acetate sheets to create photographic images. At her desk she was working on a new landscape drawing, and demonstrated her technique for drawing trees— her hand worked quickly, repeatedly moving the pen in short, precise ticks to create the branches. Her brisk movements suggested a seasoned adeptness, but also a willingness to make mistakes and the know-how to fix them. She showed us her assortment of models, which includes all kinds of people, animals and buildings, and then brought us a few steps away from her desk to the closet darkroom she had built. The darkroom is tiny, but it does the trick and as she illustrated how she brings together all the components to make a single image, I began to fully appreciate what a complex and multi-faceted undertaking her work is. I felt a wave of satisfaction at finally arriving at some semblance of understanding regarding the practical side of her process. But days later I found myself still speculating about the notions within her work, particularly those that considered the shifting nature of memory and perception, and how landscape and our relationships to it are dictated by our ever-changing experiences. The physicality of her work; the layering strategy of her drawings for each piece, the arrangement of the models, and the shadowy images that she creates all seem to mirror a central thought— that our sense of place in our environment, our belonging and understanding, is an inconstant, volatile and fragile foothold, at best. And, that it’s not just our foothold that’s shaky, but the land itself.
When people ask you what you “do”, how do you answer?
I usually say artist although it depends a bit on context and how much I want to explain. People are generally very curious by what I mean when I say that. The term “artist” gets thrown around a lot to reference not necessary a profession but more a state of mind or a hobby and I’ve been trying to actively reclaim the term in a way; to mean something that I’ve worked towards for a long time, invested in, gone to school for etc…Not in anyway to be snooty, but simply to have respect for what I do and what the people around me are doing. Taking my work seriously has been a really big commitment and I’ll be paying off art school loans forever, and for a while I had a chip on my shoulder about the term being used so lightly. But this past summer I realized that I don’t need to be so defensive and protective of the title “artist”— I’m beginning to become more comfortable with the idea that it’s an ever-evolving reality. Still, saying I’m an artist can come out a bit awkward sometimes.
Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
I work sometimes-part-time-sometimes-full-time as a Personal Assistant. I really like my job; it allows me a lot of flexibility and I’m lucky to have a great boss that is sympathetic and appreciative of what I do in my art career. I’m able to take whole days off for studio time but it also keeps me busy enough that I always have a reason to get out of my studio if I need to. The truth is, I wouldn’t want to make art full time I do much better when I’m very busy, when there’s a lot on my plate, and my mind is kept constantly active.
What mediums do you work with? How would you describe your subject matter? What themes seem to occur/reoccur in your work?
The end result of my process is usually a photograph and I use HO scale miniatures and drawings to create the images. The series of images I am currently working on involves mostly drawings that are then translated in the darkroom onto photo paper.
The subject matter and theme of my work tends to revolve around memory and landscape. More and more, it’s about how I remember landscapes, what I find beautiful in the landscape and why. Also, a feeling of dislocation in the landscape— be it the dislocation of people within a landscape or the actual fragmentation of landscape. In the new work, I keep coming back to the idea of planes of landscape existing and moving independently from one another, almost like tectonic plates. I guess that image comes to mind because I grew up on the West Coast experiencing earthquakes, but also because I moved around quite a bit as a child and I’ve got this sense that past experiences exist independently, but are then layered or connected together. Always, memory and dreams are underlying themes and the way humans interact with and influence landscape. I’m striving for a sense of impending disaster, but trying to do so subtly and with a strong sense of aesthetics.
What are you currently reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
I just revisited the YouTube video for “The Making of Bambi.” I saw this short documentary years ago and it pops into my head almost every day. There’s really something magical for me in the process of that type of animation and I take a lot of inspiration as far as my process is concerned from this short film. I spend a lot of time sorting through images I’ve take out the car window or found through image searches like “powerline, sunset” or “rows of houses.” When I’m in my studio I usually have NPR on, a book on tape or (although I am embarrassed to admit it) an old episode of Law & Order. I’m not sure that Law & Order really informs my work, but it is a show that is conducive to just listening to, you really don’t have to watch Sam Waterston to get the gist. I am also a big fan of listening to artist documentaries while I work, Art21 on PBS for example. I’m currently reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids, which is pretty fantastic; It reminds me in a way of A Movable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, another favorite.
What are your biggest challenges to creating art and how do you deal with them? How do you navigate the art world?
Navigating the art world is always a challenge. It’s a weird thing, being an artist, because I end up spending all this time alone, doing something that most people don’t really understand. When I go out after a few days in the studio I can find myself just jabbering on and on to a friend and I’ll realize that I haven’t really talked to anyone in days. That said, it is also really important to be part of the artistic community, to network and be social. So much success is based on whom you know and how you know them and getting your work in front of the right person at the right moment. Finding a balance is key; knowing when to get myself out to openings and when it’s ok to call it a day. Also patient persistence. Some people get famous overnight, but for most of us, there is some time that has to be put in. It’s important to have a thick skin and focusing on the positive, it’s easy to be bummed about the shows I haven’t gotten and then to just stress about the shows I have, sometimes I have to metaphorically slap myself in the face to get perspective. In general I manage to not take things really personally when it comes to my career and artwork.
What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
I’d say since grad school, a requirement for any living situation has been to have some sort of space to work in. I work best with a studio in my living space. I can check in whenever I need to and it’s right there in front of me and hard to avoid. My last two apartments have had the space for a closet darkroom which has been essential to the making of the new work. It’s messy and sculptural and it would be difficult to do what I do in a rent-by-the-hour type of shared darkroom.
Has there been a shift or change in your life or work that has led to what you’re making now? Do you see your work as autobiographical at all? The work isn’t specifically autobiographical but it is based on my own memories and places that have been significant to me. I recently finished a series that I was working on for about seven years. I was getting bored with the process and it was beginning to feel somewhat mechanical and distant for me. There was some time where I was beginning to feel a little panicky about what I was going to do next. When I would go into my studio and actively try to find something new I would always come up short. Then, about a year and a half ago, maybe two years now (yikes!) I was teaching an alternative photography class as CCSF that had very low attendance. Since I only had a few students I had a lot of time to mess around in the darkroom and one evening I just started playing with my models and photograms. When I least expected it, I found a whole new trajectory that I now think will fuel my work for sometime. Seems like when I am open and playful and not too worried about it, that is when the real inspiration comes.
Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about? I am really excited about the series of photograms I am working on. I recently was asked for the first time to do a show where the work wasn’t made yet. It was really exciting to have the curator have that much faith in me and my work and I am very excited about how the work is coming along.
What are you most proud of?
Getting this far. Finding a flexible job that allows me to make my work. Having some truly amazing friends and family.
What do you want your work to do?
Ultimately I want my work to evoke emotion in the viewer— to make work that is relatable and emotional.
What advice has influenced you?
In undergrad, I had an amazing professor, Mark Newport, who was not afraid to tell it like it is. He gave me low expectations and told me straight about how hard it would be to take this path. Not to say he discouraged me, quite the contrary, he just let me know that I might not get into grad school the first time I applied (for example), that it would take time and persistence and not to be disappointed and keep trying. Because of him, I knew going in I wasn’t going to make any money and that it would be a long road. As a result, I was surprised and elated to get into CCA the first time I applied instead of being disappointed and depressed by not getting into RISD. I’m not afraid to apply to things because I assume I won’t get it, it’s all just practice and getting something is more the exception than the rule. I think this advice more than any other, has helped me keep my head above water.
How will you know when you have arrived?
I think that part of what being an artist is, for many artists at least, is a constant dissatisfaction with where you are in your career. There is always another residency, a better show, etc… and a need and pressure to evolve and keep yourself and your viewers interested. It’s the journey and not the destination, right? Having said all that, I’d really love to eventually get a SECA Art Award and be a part of YBCA’s triennial exhibition, Bay Area Now.
Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
I’ll be part of the Artist Annual show at Kala Institute for the Arts in December; I have a two-person show with Sean McFarland opening at the Nelson Gallery at UC Davis in April, and then a Kala fellowship exhibition in late summer 2012.
To see more of Vanessa’s work: www.vanessamarshphotography.com