Magazine article Sculpture

Spirit and Matter

Magazine article Sculpture

Spirit and Matter

Article excerpt

Peter Selz: You've worked in many different media, but the installations have intrigued me most. I'd like to start with Memory Garden (198g). Could you explain all the beetles?

Mildred Howard: I was invited by Ann Chamberlain to complete a residency at Headlands Center for the Arts that became Memory Garden. At the time, I had a full-time position at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, and I was also making art full-time. At the Exploratorium, I was responsible for developing curriculum for elementary and middle schoolteachers, with the goal of integrating art and science. My focus was on the physics of light and color; I was captivated by what happens when light goes through an object-how it reflects, how it refracts, how shadows change over time. On one occasion, I used bottles to develop an experiment. I spent a lot of time considering how colored bottles cast colored shadows and how clear bottles cast shadows in various shades of gray.

At the same time, I was rereading a book by james Weldon johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, which is about a young person grappling with identity. Somehow both of those things jelled. Not only was I looking at the physics of light and color, I was finding connections with the metaphor, the history, and the function of the bottle -its associations and its role as a figurative vessel for memory.

PS: It is nod so easy to combine science and memory.

MH: It all seemed to make sense to me at the time, and it still makes sense to me because we live in a sensory world, just because we don't know something or don't see it, doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. It's always there.

One of the things I learned from working at the Exploratorium is that everything you need to know about a particular thing exists within that thing or object. So, everything I wanted to know about that bottle and that shadow was right there in front of me. And this idea continues to inform the work that I am doing now.

PS: The beetle has all kinds of metaphorical meanings in the South.

MH: In the South, bottles were traditionally placed in gardens and around beds of flowers to keep bad spirits away. The expression is "keeping the vexes away." It's a Southern term you wouldn't hear in California except from those who have spent time in the South and are accustomed to that kind of idiom. You see similar practices in Latin American countries, where bottles are sometimes used as a protective gate around the periphery of a house. There are also bottle trees, which have a similar meaning and function. I was shown how a piece of fruit can grow inside a bottle.

All of these things became part of my inguiry into this one object, the bottle. What is interesting is how one guestion can lead to another, and you begin to follow this path of investigation, opening up this creative path and generating this visual vocabulary that can be used when needed. Many of the approaches to scientific inguiry that were a big part of the intellectual culture at the Exploratorium continue to be useful in my art-making process.

PS: And then you have a boat inside a bottle.

MH: I believe those boats are made so that they collapse, and then when one is inserted into the bottle it can be opened up. During my time at the Headlands Center for the Arts, which is in an old Army barracks located on the beach in Sausalito, California, a visitor came in and remarked that empty bottles were a metaphor for dead soldiers. Suddenly this familiar object, the bottle, had a whole new dimension. My work often hinges on how one object can contain all these layers of information that persist across time, across geographical borders, and cultures.

PS: Ten Little Children is a wonderful piece.

MH: Ten Ldtle Children Standing in a Line, One God Shod and Then There Were Nine -the title is based on a nursery rhyme. Betye Saar gave me that title when I was talking with her about the work. I thought about that piece for nearly 20 years before it manifested itself. …

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