collage artist︎ Palo Alto/California/United States
Could you please introduce yourself a little? Where did you grow up? What is your background?
I grew up on the East Coast, in New Jersey, close to NYC. I went to college at University of Michigan where I got my undergraduate and Masters degrees in Art History and Museum Practice. I was a photographer from a very young age and wrote my thesis papers in the history of photography; my Master’s thesis was titled “Photomontage and the Montage Sensibility. ” I wrote about the many approaches to photography that involved multiple images. Researching some of my papers I worked in the Rare Book Room at the New York Public Library, a beautiful and extensive academic and visual resource. This famous library is turning 125 years old this year. This building was the inspiration for the facade of Unbound, the building we are taking to Burning Man in 2020.
When did your artistic interests begin?
My passion began when I got my first camera in 3rd grade at a time when kids just didn’t have cameras. Later I built a darkroom in my house and would go into NYC to see exhibitions. I remember the first photo exhibition I saw in NYC’s Light Gallery that was showing the work of Ray Metzker. His large grids of photographs exposed me to a new way of presenting photography.
What started your interested in collage work in particular?
My first interest in collage was again photomontage. I had this interest in how photography could be seen differently when combined as multiples, most notably the work of the Dadaists and also the large installation work being created in the 1970s. As I mentioned, I then did my thesis in the 1980s on these concepts. My thesis was on the different styles of combining images and how photographers were looking to the environment for existing, layered images that created what I called a “montage sensibility.”
Twenty years later, after working in museums and auction houses for 15 years, I began making art, mostly using vintage photographs in large grids. I had three small children and had gone through an extensive cancer treatment, so I left work and began making art, really with no training other than photography. So my art practice has been a constant exploration of materials and ideas. I started by sewing photos together, then collaging photos and book parts, imbedding images in resin and making digital collages on a residency in an antiquities collection. For a short time I was working with a variety of printmaking techniques, including photographic solar etchings and adding chin collé to copper etchings. Eventually certain bodies of work didn’t include photography at all, but I continued to reuse found materials that had information in them, what I like to call “old data.”
On your website, you describe yourself as a project-based artist. Could you explain what exactly this mean to you and what made you choose this label – for lack of a better word?
Because each body of work has been a response to the materials I’m using, from my microfilm installations to digital collages, to 19th Century Cabinet Card grids, I felt that each body of work looked so different than the last that I thought of each series as a project. All the bodies of work show my interest in repurposing materials and a curiosity of the meaning of aging and deterioration, as well as the information that these objects hold. Even when I drip house paint on used vinyl signage, information about the color of paint that people in my town are picking to use is of interest to me. The exploration of materials and how they age has become the thread throughout my work and a metaphor for the journey of a human life.
You create collage and mixed media pieces and also take photographs. Do you work in any other media?
I have enjoyed printmaking, but still found myself collaging or putting chine collé on etchings. I also build on a large-scale art crew, David Best’s Temple Crew. We have travelled around to build non-denominational temples for people to visit and heal themselves. As many as 600 people have volunteered to build a single Temple with us. It is incredibly hard physical work, but I love the people I work with and the power of the art. I often do big art builds twice a year for a month or longer. These temples are built to be temporary—as is life, and are often burned.
How would you describe your work in your own words?
My study of the history of art and my experiences working with museum collections have impacted my art making process in multiple ways. I have always collected objects and find that I respond to those that are full of information, whether in their age, the data they hold, or they way they reflect the ideas, vision or handiwork of another person. Deconstructing thrown-away objects reveals their structure and former function while also exposing unique histories. I incorporate, and also bury, old data from these objects as a way of respecting and preserving the information and the object's former function. The work explores concepts around time and deterioration as well as human communication of information, while revealing my interest in surrealism, politics and even humor.
Where do you find the materials for your pieces? Or rather, how do you choose what to work with and what to discard?
I mostly work with materials I find for free at various recycling places, or from estate or books sales. I choose the objects that speak to me through their materials, shape or age. I have always been a collector of old photos and objects, the only difference is that I now use them in my art. I get all the project’s books for free after the monthly book sale in Palo Alto, near where Stanford University is. They sell or dispose of some 40K books each month. Many books are collected by people to send to other countries, many are picked up by obsessive collectors and many must be discarded.
So many of the books I have trouble cutting into because of their beauty, their subject, their illustrations. I often look them up on-line to find them selling for very little. But some I still cannot repurpose. So they are given away or used as whole books. But when I do cut into a book, so much is discovered in the hidden bindings or how the linen was attached to the davey board and how it looks after you pull it off the cover.
When volunteers come to help me they often say, “Oh no, I’m spending too much time looking at these books,” and I always tell them that is part of our art making process. Respecting the materials, enjoying them and learning from them.
You are currently working on a large project called UNBOUND for Burning Man. But before we go into this, could you explain what Burning Man is and stands for?
Burning Man is an experiment in creative, temporary living in the harsh environment of Nevada’s Black Rock desert—an ancient sea bed at 4000 feet above sea level. 75,000 people create a city filled with art for one week of the year. Some artists, like myself, spend a year building the art that they intend to bring though the City only exists for one week.
Burning Man has 10 principles, which can be found under its philosophical center, which we hope to live by while there. It is expected that everyone will participate in some way and give their services, passion, food or something to the community. I build art but we also have a group that has a ‘Theme Camp’ which is the Black Rock Tea Shop. Our gift to the community is we serve tea and alcohol and at night we have live piano sing-alongs from 8-10pm. It is a unique community building place and I have the most diverse friend group that I have met from building art there over the years.
And now to UNBOUND. It’s a big collaborative project between you, your husband, and other artists and friends. Could you describe what it’s all about?
Yes, my husband, Dave Nelson-Gal, and I have been designing this large piece together. Unbound is a library-- a temple to human thought, altered by time, space and energy and collaged with over 3000 deconstructed books infusing the piece with a debris field of ideas. Emanating from the walls are recorded readings contributed by individuals from around the world. This piece is meant to reveal the boundless potential of human thought, creativity and collaboration as well as question how time can change our understanding of what once was fact.
In the multiverse, havoc has created the Unbound library, a 3-room building that defies its purpose and its state of being. Is it disintegrating or under construction? The open, criss-crossing roof beams expose the library to the elements; and the walls, void of book shelves, are clad in old book parts. This space becomes a visual, physical and conceptual backdrop for spoken words that emanate from the walls--words, poems, writings--that have been contributed by people around the world.
Ascending the stairs, one chooses to enter one of three arched doors, each of which introduces a different human path: the physical, the spiritual or the intellectual. The doors look through the building to the rising sun, while shadows are woven from the slatted roof. Sconces and glowing chandeliers of book pages hang in each room. There are benches and stairs for sitting. A library table and curiosity cabinets, with found and created book objects, offer further reflection into the materials.
“Multiverse” is the theme of this year’s burn so we are imagining Unbound to be deconstructed Library from another universe.
How do you feel when you deconstruct a book?
Respectful and in awe, maybe a bit like an autopsy. Some books are simply too beautiful to take apart and I put them aside hoping I will find another use for them in their original format. One person commented on my Instagram feed imploring me to leave the books in their original format. My husband reminded me that none of us are in our original format. Time impacts, and ultimately ravages everything.
The books I gather for free are generally headed to a shredder, another hoarders home, or to a non-profit organization that may ship them abroad. Because non-profits are allowed to go through the books before they are offered for free to the general public I feel no guilt giving these books one last expression, even if in a very different format.
When we cut off the covers, we are often excited to share what we find on the bindings. Tucked into the book interiors are often letters, tickets to a show, notes and other ephemera which we keep to highlight them in boxes of curiosities in the two side rooms. The signature pages and marginalia are also parts of the books that are special.
Tell me a little bit about your ideas on deconstruction as an art form?
Deconstructing objects, even when they have been discarded, is somewhat of an act of courage. Knowing the object can teach you something beyond what is immediately visible is exciting but also hard. Objects become so precious. An artist is initially attracted to the object for a particular reason, whether it’s about the shape, the age, the damage or its history and we often don’t want to alter it. But choosing to go deeper into the object, may expose further beauties or reveal its individual history.
I found a weathered old leather satchel at a garage sale once. The leather was so perfectly aged, and the hand marks of the previous owner were clearly revealed. But I took apart the stitching on the sides and found that comic strips from a very old newspaper had disintegrated and were now clung to the inside wall of the leather. I laid it flat, coated it in medium to protect it and considered it a finished piece of found art. Working with the books is similar to this. We never know what we are going to find when we start poking around.
UNBOUND is scheduled for August 2020 if I’m not mistaken. Since when have you been working on and preparing this?
We decided to make this piece right after Burning Man this past September. We were inspired and encouraged by various artist friends and decided to commit the year to making a piece.
We spent the first months thinking a lot about how the structure would look. I’m a two-dimensional artist and I knew the surface of the piece would be covered in book part collages, and conceptually I knew what I wanted to present, but the structure took more time to solve. We finally ended on creating a 3-room building inspired by the front of the New York Public Library which happens to turn 125 years old this year. I love the library, its look, its function and the personal history I have with it. I used the Rare Book Room there while I was in graduate school.
I began collecting books for free after the monthly book sale in October. Each month friends come and help Dave and me gather about 400 books.
This January we were lucky enough to find a temporary location large enough to build in and we moved in on February 1st. I have been collaging small detail parts of the piece and this past weekend we officially began to build.
What will happen to the installation and structures after Burning Man?
We are constructing the piece in components, so we can more easily assemble it on the windy Playa. This also allows us to deconstruct it and bring it home more easily. Because it is likely too big for most other venues, we hope to show it outside of Burning Man in new configurations. We may reconstruct the center structure, or create a new structure from the walls.
It’s a huge collaborative project. Are you looking for contributions and if so, in what form?
Yes it is. Like many Burning Man installations, we have a core team that is helping us with everything from cutting, building, engineering and fundraising to helping feed the crew on Playa. Volunteers are invited to come by on certain work days and help as well. Sharing the build with people is really a big part of the experience.
We have also applied for a grant from the Burning Man Foundation to help with the costs. In addition we will also launch a fundraising effort through Indiegogo, or some similar site. People who help fund the project will receive gifts that range from necklaces made out of book parts to large sections of collage from the walls.
What do you feel is the value of collaboration with other artists?
The collaboration is probably 50% of the project. While the final structure will hopefully engage thousands of people on the Playa with both its visual complexity and its sound, building with so many friends, old and new, is really the heart of the project and what we will remember the longest. It’s 6 months of work, mostly on weekends, compared to a few weeks on the Playa. My husband and I have worked on many art build crews and love the camaraderie. It is really special to be doing this now for our own project.
It makes sense that many of the people who come to work on this project or connect with it are lovers of reading and books. Everyone has a story from childhood about what voracious readers they were and how books have defined them. I love these stories, but these are not my story.
Languages and reading were hard for me as a child and I didn’t read a lot. I love reading now, but I am still a slow reader. My memories are more visual and involve a love of what the books looked like, the illustrations in them or the languages they were written in that I could not decipher.
My father was a physicist and I loved looking at his pages of 6-tiered equations. I have used some of them in my art over the years. But I never was really driven to learn what they meant—I was just fascinated that he spoke an abstract language that I didn’t. To me it’s like looking at Chinese or other languages with completely different alphabets. I love that other humans communicate in a way I can’t understand. One of my favorite activities as a student at the U of Michigan was to walk through the Graduate Library Stacks and look at the Chinese book collection which was the largest outside of China at the time.
Another favorite activity in graduate school, which could be reproduced today on the internet, but was so much slower and more tactile, was what I called shelf reading. I would go to a section in the basement of the Art History Library, stand in front of the 19th-century sculpture section for instance, and look through every page of every book. I was able to do some original research this way, but mostly it transported me to another place.
Libraries have always been a symbol of the vast amount of information I will never know, but possibly could. A record of what humans collectively know together. I hope that Unbound in a small way will illustrate the overlapping, complicated and sometimes conflicting information that we believe we have mastered.
Julia Nelson-Gal ︎ ︎
Unbound ︎ ︎
interview: Petra Zehner