SIFC recently sat down with ACRE artist-in-residence Claudia Berns. Berns is currently preparing for a solo exhibition at the Plaines Project in Pilsen, and we were lucky enough to catch her—surrounded by an otherworldly assortment of wood and cloth—in the middle of installing her artwork.
Immediately upon entering the Plaines Project exhibition space, we were greeted by a cascade of gauzy fabric and soft light. Yards upon yards of multi-colored fabric hung from the walls, and wooden cut-outs of trees and leafs seemed to peek out from behind the swathes of cloth. A human-sized nest, large enough to comfortably accommodate at least six adults, sat in the center of the installation.
Berns tells us that, at the opening reception of her exhibition, she and her friends will play handmade musical instruments designed to complement her artwork. Her photography will also line the walls of the exhibition space, and guests will be encouraged to wander in and around her installation.
SIFC is certainly excited to see the culmination of her work with ACRE, and we encourage interested city dwellers to stop by the reception on April 1st.
At SIFC we believe in starting our interviews off with a bang, and there’s something we’re absolutely dying to know: what’s your drink of choice?
Windsor with club soda.
Your favorite color?
Your favorite smell?
I love the smell of everything outside after it rains—it reminds me of being a kid.
Good answer. It isn’t surprising that nature imagery seems to feature so prominently in your work. And, now that we’ve gotten the really important stuff out of the way, could you tell us a bit about yourself and your artwork?
I move around and spend a lot of time staying in different places. In my off seasons I live in Minnesota with my mother and cats. For the past three years I have been staying in a remote area on the Minnesota-Canadian border where I bartend and make pictures, sculptures, and fabric installations in the woods. I am interested in the way women connect with their bodies in nature and I make a lot of my work from my emotional response to that connection.
You live in Minnesota now, but you’ve also spent a lot of time in Chicago. How has this city influenced your creative practice?
I went to Columbia College fresh out of high school, and I felt like a lil’ fish in a real big pond. I was enamored with the way people utilize so many different parts of the city—from building art and music spaces with salvaged materials to the street art that wraps its arms in every direction.
So this city has been a source of inspiration for you?
Yes. I’m inspired by the Chicagoans whom I know and love, who bring me new horizons of thinking and moving.
“Horizons of thinking and moving.” That’s an apt description of much of your work. Do you remember the first significant work of your mature career?
I made a photography project in a tiny fishing resort on an island on the border of Canada, where I was living and working. Men outnumbered women 10 to 1 in this area, and I was interested in exploring femininity in male identity and the restraints of gender assignment.
How does that piece compare to your current work?
My current work feels like a big sister to that project—it’s similar with its interaction in nature, and different in searching and ideas.
You’re currently installing an exhibition, “Traversing Current: My Search for Womb and Mother,” to mark the end of your residency with ACRE. How will your upcoming exhibition relate to the art you’ve created in the past?
ACRE’s residency really allowed me a space to span outside of art mediums I was used to working in. This exhibition has some of my wood pieces I have made since ACRE, and this is the first time I have shown anything like this installation. Mostly I have shown photographs but I am very excited for this show and plan to continue this blend of work.
That’s good to hear! We were also intrigued by your wood pieces. Could you tell us a little about why you decided to work within that motif?
I spent a lot of time thinking about how I am connected to the forest and am consistently amazed by the levels and layers of life within it. Every part of this piece represents a layer of the relationship I have formed with seeing and experiencing nature. To me these trees and leaves have become a part of myself.
You also return to the image of the nest repeatedly in your work. Do you think you’re drawn to create nests and nest-like spaces for aesthetic or symbolic reasons? Symbolic. I am fascinated with the way birds make nests and chipmunks dig burrows. Animals create spaces of comfort and safety to birth and care for their young. I thought a lot about what it is to intentionally create a safe space to give birth and commune in.
It’s interesting that you mention the way that animals caring for their young, because your installation has an undeniably playful, almost child-like, quality to it. Did you inject this sense of whimsy into the work intentionally, or did it involve more organically? It felt very natural to be playful with it, and I had a lot of fun creating my own den and nest— really exploring what would work in that space. I think it is really important to maintain our sense of wonder, and I really tried to that in this work.
Perhaps in an effort to maintain that sense of wonderment, you’ve also chosen to incorporate live music into your opening reception. How do you think the music you play will affect the way visitors perceive your artwork?
The musical performance is really meant to bring this work to life. I think something special happens when people experience a performance in a space together—as a form of communion. When I made each part of this—I wanted it to be shared.
How would you like your work to develop over the course of the next five years? What do you hope to be doing?
I would love to live in the countryside—working with women as a midwife, while continuing to make photography, installation, and sculpture.
“Traversing Current: My Search for Womb and Mother” will open at the Plaines Project on April 1st. What will you work on once you’ve finished in
stalling this exhibit?
This summer I am preparing to work on a project investigating the development of my sexual identity —in relation to my own body, while questioning the duality of social identity and animal instinct.
We’re certainly eager to see your work at the Plaines Project, and we wish you the best of luck in all your future endeavors. But before we leave you, we have one final question for you: nude or naked?