Senses of Living® Décor

Spring 2006
© 2006 by Bret S. Beall


I traveled to Portland, Oregon in August 2004 (my second trip there). Upon arrival, I connected with a friend who was there attending the Ecological Society of America meetings, and we began a ten-day adventure through wine country, redwood country, coastal country and scrub country, sampling wines, tasting regional foods, experiencing gorgeous vistas, viewing amazing wildlife, wading along spectacular beaches, and in general, having one of the best trips ever.

Who would have thought that the Portland International Airport would be an fantastic cap on this adventure? We were walking toward our respective terminals, and passed an eye-catching display of local art. One piece in particular caught my attention: See the central image, called "Spread," at http://brendamallory.com/htmls/exhibits/2004.html. As biologists, my friend and I both thought, "Calcareous algae!" And I thought, "Organic art! I must locate this artist!" The only data I had were her name (Brenda Mallory) and the sponsoring organization's name.

Thus began a series of web searches, phone calls and email exchanges. These efforts have resulted in seeing Brenda create an online "catalog" of her amazing works of art at http://brendamallory.com/index.html, then to my asking her if she would give me an interview for this column, and finally to her agreeing to be interviewed. It took a bit of effort for both of us to find a mutually amenable time, but we found it, and here is our conversation:

BRET: Brenda, I can't thank you enough for agreeing to share your artistic perspective with my readers.

BRENDA: Thank you for being so interested. It's nice that you reached out.

BRET: How would you describe your artistic/creative style? What is your goal?

BRENDA: My goal would be to make objects that are compelling enough visually that people stop and take a second look. I think sometimes that my work has a certain strange, visceral beauty, but it's also disquieting and unsettling. The point is that it relies on your individual experience to create an impression.

BRET: So you're trying to operate at multiple levels of experience?

BRENDA: Actually, at multiple levels of IDEAS. My concern has been how fast technology has advanced on us and how we are expected to participate in untested technology. I'm specifically thinking about genetic modification. You can hardly even eat anything commercially produced that doesn't have some genetically modified ingredient, and we don't know the long-term effects of this technology. Yet, if we don't participate, we are considered some sort of strange curmudgeon. On the other side, there are many things that we can use technology to gain by. Unfortunately, technology isn't driven by altruism, but by corporate money mongers. It all becomes a profit making devise. One example is Monsanto's terminator seed, which is genetically programmed to grow once, with the resulting seeds being unviable. The farmer who might have preserved seeds from last year is out of luck, and must buy new seeds.

I'm pro-evolution, so I'm bothered by the natural cycle being disrupted. I see my work tying into that. Sometimes, my work is just a reflection of my perception of the world today, using hard materials like nuts and bolts, which are crude, but then so are many of our scientific or technological methods.

BRET: As you know, I was drawn to your work because it reminded me of various elements I recognized from my biological/paleontological career, and your website cites similar inspiration. That said, while your work is reminiscent of various organisms or parts of organisms, it's still uniquely interpretive. Your website explains that you use a juxtaposition of natural materials with inorganic materials to make a statement on biotechnology. Would you care to elaborate?

BRENDA: I also have people tell me that my work reminds them of barnacles, or other sea creatures. I don't set out to do that, but I am in agreement. I think this is because my work is otherworldly, things we have never seen. And the ocean is otherworldly; we really can't go there. Maybe that's why people are reminded of sea life. Actually, I look more at biology and botany books, and anatomy books with villi and intestinal coiling. They are things not in our immediate environment either, so they seem otherworldly.

BRET: You earned a BA in Linguistics & English in 1982 from UCLA. Twenty years later, in 2002, you earned a BFA. Right smack dab in the middle, in 1992, you founded your company, GladRags (http://www.gladrags.com/, hygienic and earth-friendly feminine hygiene products). At what point did you consider yourself an artist, and by what process did you come to create the style that is all yours?

BRENDA: Hmmm, I never realized it happened in those 10-year time frames. But, I think I've always been an artist, with an artistic bent, but I never had a formal background. I come from a family in Oklahoma where art just wasn't on our radar. We were creative, but it was always practical, things that we needed to use. I don't think I visited a museum until I was an adult. It was in college that I really became creative. I first pursued ceramic art, and then I studied English and Linguistics (English as the art, Linguistics in the science), so I was always dabbling in the art and science of experience. So I dabbled for years.

After college, I worked at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. But after I had my daughter, I was looking for something that could be done at home. I started GladRags because I could work at home and be with my daughter, and also help the environment. I started out by doing the sewing. GladRags is no longer a home business, we have several employees, and we long ago outsourced the sewing. But I continued to draw, and take classes, until one day I just felt I was going crazy. I would go into galleries, and I would get this visceral feeling of longing. At some point, I just said, "I've got to do this. I'm going to art school, even though it's totally impractical." But I got a solid foundation, and I'm so glad I did. I have more debt than I should; my husband, my daughter and I will all probably have college loans at the same time. But that's when I got focused on art. It's what gave me the conceptual basis that I was missing when I was dabbling.

BRET: You talked ceramics, and drawing, and other kinds of dabbling over the years. How has your style changed over the years?

BRENDA: For the longest time, I didn't even have a style. When you dabble, I don't think you really develop a style. What I did develop that has continued to show through all of the years was just some attraction to make some repetitive marks or repetitive forms. This appears in some of my ceramics that exhibit that contrast between smooth and coarse textural qualities. My telephone doodlings in those days, cellular forms that just grow across the page, are like some of the sculptural forms that I do now. I think some of my recent works are actually equivalent to making some of those two-dimensional drawings into three-dimensional forms. This gets to the "multiple ideas" concept I already mentioned. I talked about the CONCEPTUAL part of my work, such as my message against genetic modification, but there is also the PROCESS basis of my art, where it's about the actual MAKING: making the forms, making 3000 of them, and then putting 3000 of them together, but that is after waxing and burning and burnishing each piece prior to connecting it to the others in the final form. It's the process. It's letting the hands do what is rote, and letting the brain go a meditative state, or relaxing to music. I'm also a very physical person, so when I make a form, I make 100 of then, rarely two or three.

BRET: Your emphasis on process reminds me of the goal of Buddhism and certain other spiritual traditions. Is your art a spiritual expression?

BRENDA: I guess in a certain way. What I can say is that the process of "making," the work itself, becomes evidence of spirit for me. Being a very physical person, but when I make this thing, and it attains its own existence separate from me, somehow that's evidence of my spirit at work. And I do go to a very calm, spiritual place; that's why I do it, and why I like this work.

Something that happens around us is a sort of continuity, where one thing becomes another in an organic process. But, going back to Monsanto's terminator seed, there was no continuity; this seed left a void in the process. When we see an organic form, such as an empty seedpod, we can ask "What happened? Did the seed go on? Was it a successful process?" What I find in my work is that it begins to seed itself. The work directs itself. New things come from the process. That is one of the aspects that I most like about art making. I can set out to do something, but when you find your work telling you to create something new, and you don't know what it is, that's one of the things that I just love. It truly is an organic process.

BRET: What you have just described is what many if not most creative people actually describe as the creative process. Where they may have some idea going into it, but that changes once they are in it.

BRENDA: Right. Sometimes it is a change for the better, sometimes not. But it is that change that makes the work exciting. If you insist on just illustrating the initial idea, all you have is the idea, and it is like dictation. But when you allow yourself to be open to the happy accidents, it is truly a creative act. That is what I feel when I make a lot of my art from the "offcuts" of the Glad Rags. I have the sewing team bring the "offcuts" back to me, and I'm surrounded by stacks and stacks of the same shape. I let that shape speak to me and inspire me. I'll connect and modify. Another thing that has happened, for example, in that piece that you first saw at the airport, is that in order to put that piece together I had to clip off the bottom of each unit to allow the steel rod to go through them all. I suddenly had all of these small new shapes to create from. I'm very materials driven, which is one more level at which the ideas work.

BRET: In addition to being materials driven, one could also say you are recycling- or reusing-driven. Clearly, you have an interest in environmental issues. Tell me about your history with pro-environment work, your current work with GladRags, and what you see in the future for pro-environmental activities?

BRENDA: I will just say at the outset that I feel that using the GladRags scraps in my work is a happy accident. It's not like I started out to use those materials. If another material became available, I'd use it, but those scraps are the materials in my life right now. Big piles come in all the time, so I use them. My work will always have an environmental bent. I use new materials. As an artist, one has to experiment. Sometimes these materials are toxic, like resin. I could use resin, and it MIGHT be more effective, but I use natural beeswax, not only for wholesome reasons, but because I feel that beeswax has more meaning to me than resin.

One thing that I try to do is to keep my talk about art separate from GladRags. I find when I talk about GladRags that the conversation about art collapses and turns into talk about Gladrags. So I don't bring it up in so often during discussion about my artwork, but in the context of our conversation, it's like a great circle. Some observers think some of my pieces look vaginal, and that's natural, given the materials. I'm pretty selective about the GladRags scraps. I use only the organic undyed cotton rather than other colors.

We didn't talk much about the happy accident, just the creative process. For years, I kept thinking, "Somebody's got to do something with these Glad Rags scraps." We called around, and sometimes people took them, but then stopped after a while, so unfortunately sometimes we just dumped them in the trash and I hated that. The day that I started using them, I actually had a whole other project in mind using welded steel. But I didn't know how to weld yet and my friend who was going to teach me to weld wasn't available. I was in a hurry, the assignment was due soon so I decided to try waxing the cloth (the GladRags scraps) and using them instead of pieces of steel. Eureka! That waxed cloth has become my "thing," my signature. And it all happened because my friend was so busy, and I wanted someone to use those scraps, dammit.

BRET: What about the future of your artwork? I asked before how your style had changed up to this point. Are you experimenting with new materials and techniques at this time? Such as …?

BRENDA: This past year, I had a full year residency at the Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA), the school I went to. I really took advantage of the welding shop. I made welded steel an integral part of the body of work I created during the residency. Some of my earlier work had steel as infrastructure, but now it becomes a formal element of the work. The body of work was called "Biophilia," and I got a grant for the project from the Regional Arts and Culture Council. It's based on a biology book I go through all of the time. The first chapter is "Why we study biology." It states, "Diversity and unity are the dual faces of life on earth." Isn't that just an overwhelming truth that we could all embrace? There are big statements in the book like that. My plan was to do a 3D illustration of each book chapter heading. Since I was going to be at PNCA and have access to all of this welding equipment and the metal shop, I decided to incorporate more metal that you could actually see. Now, my residency is over, and I don't currently have access to a metal shop, so I'm pursuing new options. I have a studio in my basement, but it's not a good place for welding.

BRET:Your Path to creating this body of work has been fascinating. Do you have any advice for readers who have not yet realized their innate creativity?

BRENDA: Creativity takes so many forms. Art is just one. Even if I weren't an artist, I'd still be a creative person. Creativity is around us all of the time. I cook, I garden, I paint. Just do it. Just start making. If you hate it, don't throw it away but put it away to revisit later. I think you can have a bazillion ideas, but until you start making, you never know what they can become. Some things can never come into being until you've made the three things ahead of it. Get out the ink or whatever is your material, and just do it. I rarely set out with a specific plan, but I may have an idea. I just have to get started; if I don't, nothing will come. Rarely will they look like what's in my head. If they do, that's interesting, but I had to start first! And another thing: Try to find other people to talk to for encouragement. Think about "What you are doing, and why you are doing it." Writing about your work is useful (though I find it excruciating), just to help yourself find the reasons for doing your work.

BRET: If someone wanted to acquire one (or more) of your works, what would they do?

BRENDA: Right now, the best thing is to just contact me directly at brenda@brendamallory.com. I'm not represented by a gallery. If there is one or more pieces that they've seen on the website, they should contact me. I can email the price list if they want. Many no longer exist, many are sold, but others are in my basement. One of the pieces from the residency, "Biophilia," was a large piece created in segments. I've sold three of the segments; they look great in people's houses. That may be inspiration for future work - to create large installations that can break apart.

BRET: Any final words?

BRENDA: Thanks for including my work and thoughts on your website. Your work is about the world, the community, we live in, and so is mine.

BRET: Thank you again, Brenda.

Isn't her tale inspiring? Isn't her work impressive? If you have been inspired by Brenda's amazing Path, or her work, please let me know at 773.508.9208 or email me. I'll be sure to pass your comments on to her.