"Blue Glue and Other Explorations": An Interview with Mara Baker
Mara Baker discusses her past work and new installation at Happy Collaborationsits
Continuing ACRE’s year-long series of shows by its 2010 summer residents, Blue Glue and Other Explorations is a body of work by Mara Baker, installed at Happy Collaborationists. Mara’s drawings, photographs, and site-specific installation serve as an exploration of histories and of the mental and physical act of collection.
For the three weeks prior to Blue Glue’s reception on Saturday, Mara had full access to the alternative exhibition space—barring when the artists who own it needed to sleep there. I interviewed her on March 17, after she had been installing for a week. Even before I knocked on the door, I could discern that distinctly dulcet din of a staple gun securing sculptural constructions into exposed brick…
As our agave nectar-infused tea steeped, Mara and I sat before her installation of blue painter’s tape coiling across composites of studio detritus, and we discussed—among other topics—the relationship between an artwork and its environment, the evolution of a piece from inception to realization, how “process” is an empty buzzword that must be avoided at all costs (not unlike my own art theoretical pet peeves, “paradigm shift” and “unpack”), and hoarding.
Not included in the following transcript are Mara’s words on disobeying ladder laws, how teaching at a community college is like boot camp, and how she originally wanted to be a gardener but decided that making a living out of architectural landscape would bore her. She still, however, owns over seventy plants.
Jenny Lam: I understand that All that is not very much consists of six years’ worth of accumulated studio detritus.
Mara Baker: At least. Maybe even more. Six years marks when I moved to Chicago for the first time, before I started graduate school. Basically, everything that you’re looking at is all of the leftovers/finished work/everything that didn’t work out or did work out that ultimately I was like, “You know what, it’s not great enough that I don’t want to recycle it back in,” because my work is fundamentally built on found residues, and a lot of those are created in my studio or in the installations that I do. I can look at teeny pieces and be like, “Well that was from 2004 when I installed that,” so it’s completely abstract to the audience, but to me it’s like a little timeline.
JL: Had you been working with and exploring residues since you moved to Chicago six years ago? How did you begin this exploration?
MB: I would say the first work that I made that I would consider really “work” was all about a family vacation place that is in the upper peninsula of Michigan. I took detritus from that place as far as texts and words and dirt and all that type of stuff, so I had been doing that from the beginning, but in graduate school and just figuring things out, it really didn’t have much engagement with the audience past my family, and so I really worked hard to find a language that spoke about the same things but was much more accessible and broad in a more experiential way.
JL: Is family history what inspires you?
MB: Definitely. My grandmother is the reason that I make work. She had a collection of over 10,000 objects of old-fashioned clothing that I catalogued with her for seven or eight years. She taught me to love things. I grew up in the house that has been in my family for 85 years, so all of that built in a really specific love of things. There was a very specific care; you never threw anything away, and so all of that stuff is built into how I was raised and how I look at the world. I’ve made work with remnants of her collection, but again, that work was all very narrow in its personal aspect, and so, for me, ultimately, that’s not enough. But if you want to understand how I got here, it’s based on that idea of really loving things.
JL: Does that family-instilled habit of collecting permeate areas of your life outside of art? Do you save objects even if you don’t initially intend to incorporate them into an art piece, or do you actively and deliberately search for objects with an artistic vision in mind?
MB: I think that it’s a spectrum. Just the other day, I was eating celery, and there was a piece of blue cellophane on the edge; I was working on a blue piece in my studio, and I was like, “Oh, this is perfect!” so it made it into the work. Partially, that has to do with the fact that my studio is in my home, and so the crossover between what’s my everyday life and what’s my studio life is very, very fluid. I live with my art, and my art lives with all the rest of my stuff. I have a lot of things; I’m very much a thing person. I have tendencies towards hoarding. [Laughter.] So yes, I save things that have no intention of going into art, but the criteria is: do I love it? And if I love it, then it stays, and if not, then it doesn’t, and a lot of times that criteria is visual.
JL: What media had you been working with before your exploration of residues and the act of collection?
MB: My background’s in painting and drawing. I was trained formally as a painter, and during undergraduate I worked in encaustic, because it allowed me to embed things into the paint and to preserve it forever; encaustic performs a seal. As a painter, I was always interested in the materials that I was using, so when I was using paint, I loved how buttery it was and the consistency and the texture, and that was really important to me, and when I started working with encaustic, how many layers I could build up and how thick I could get it and what I could embed into it became really important to me. That’s why for graduate school I went and got an MFA in Fiber, just because the conversation was about how materials function—both conceptually and functionally—how those two things overlap and what happens between them. My work, I think, is very much informed by drawing, and it will always be informed by drawing, by gesture, but it’s material research in the end, if that makes any sense.
JL: You’re very process-driven.
MB: Oh yeah. And “process” is one of those words that I hate using because I feel like it means absolutely nothing. [Laughter.]
JL: [In agreement.] It’s a buzzword!
MB: Right, exactly! I try to avoid using the word “process” and find other ways to talk about it, but yes, ultimately, all the work that I make is a derivative of a process, and the process is a lot of times both functionally and conceptually what the work is about.
JL: What do you want the viewer to get out of your work? For you, it’s very personal—you can look at one small section of this installation and pinpoint the year it’s from—but how do you want the audience to see it?
MB: I want there to be a very specific energy to it. I think definitely, for me, if the viewer comes and has an experience of some sort—is struck by the amount or the energy of the piece and if they go towards thinking about structures and different types of juxtapositions that you can make between structure and chaos—then I’m happy.
But ultimately, all of that personal history is not important for the viewer to get at all. For me, what’s really great is that, I think, just embedded in the materials is not a specific understanding of that history but an abstract understanding of that history, that you can tell that this stuff came from somewhere, and that can be conveyed to the audience without them having to actually know what it is. That’s what I hope people will get out of it.
JL: Other than the All that is not very much installation on the brown wall and brick wall, are you also going install on this white wall?
MB: So over on this wall I’m actually going to have some paintings and photographs, some of them taken during the ACRE residency, some of them other times that I painted photographs, which is a series that I had been working on, as well as small pieces, wall drawings; they respond to the wall and they come back and forth. This [wall] is very active. [Laughter.] There’s a lot going on here [on the brown wall and brick wall], and so it will be quieter over here [on the white wall], not as loud, but smaller reflections. I basically view this [All that is not very much] as a huge drawing and space. And the windows are really grounding this piece. In the end, the piece is going to come out into this space.
JL: You were doing photography at ACRE as well?
MB: I was. This work would not exist if I hadn’t done that residency. I came into ACRE and I had brought eighteen panels. I said, “I’m going to paint eighteen pieces,” and I moved back and forth between making really big, unwieldy things and really small, precise things that I’d then destroy to make big, unwieldy things [laughter] and one or two of the small, precise things is a gem, and it lasts, and then all the rest of them—usually ten or twelve—just disappear. It just goes back. So I was in one of those stages where I wanted to make small, precise, beautiful paintings, and I got there and I made one small, precise, beautiful painting, and I hated it. It just had no energy; it had no life. Talking to a bunch of people, they’re like, “Yeah, you should loosen up!” I’m like, “I know; everyone’s telling me that!” So I had all of this material that I brought with me, and I’m like, “OK, fine, I’m going to use every single piece of material that I brought, and I’m going to put them together,” and the only thing that I had was blue tape, and I just started constructing these pieces.
So while I was at ACRE, I took all of these photographs of tarping, blue tape, and very specific interactions between this very rural area and all of this junk that this guy brought, so there’s just stuff everywhere. It’s very much what it could become, and what was the most interesting thing to me about it was that this stuff was all deteriorating, so even the blue tarps that he was using to hide all this precious stuff were getting completely eaten by the earth, so there are a lot of photographs of that type of stuff, which informed me making this work. I think the reference is that kind of interaction, so they’ll be coming into play with the photographs a little bit.
JL: Since you’re directly addressing site specificity, how did you translate this body of work from a summer residency in rural Wisconsin to wintertime Chicago?
MB: That question, for me, is huge, because I’m very particular about my environment. And one of the things that’s interesting about this piece is that there are parts of it that I did this summer when I was at the residency and there are parts that I’ve done in the dead of winter here, and always that juxtaposition between natural and unnatural—urban versus rural—and how those things butt up against each other and how things naturally deteriorate are always things that I’m thinking about. And so being in those two extreme environments and then making a piece that’s informed by both of those things is exciting for me.
And a lot of the ways that I use the blue tape is it’s angular; there’s nothing that’s really organic about it, and a lot of the elements inherently are organic but are being put together in non-organic ways, so I feel like it goes back and forth between those two things. But ultimately, I think ACRE was just a really wonderful place; it was a different environment, and so it allowed me to think in a different way and then bring that back to Chicago and do what I needed to do with it. [Laughter.]
JL: It seems as though it would be a shock returning here.
MB: Yeah, I spend a lot of time on an island in the upper peninsula of Michigan with no electricity, and, for me, that’s a really sacred, wonderful space to think, and so ACRE was very much an extension of that, only with a bunch of other artists, which was great. And when I came back, I put all of this stuff away for a couple of months and worked on other things, because I just couldn’t process it in the same way, and in December when I was really trying to nail down what I was going to do for this project—I thought about doing a lot of other things, actually, than what I working on at ACRE—I finally came back to the same place. But that transition that’s part of it, I think, was in this other world that wasn’t connected to anything in my real world, and then it seemed kind of silly when I came back, almost, to make these huge blue tape constructions. [Laughter.]
JL: Especially because you’re working at home in your studio.
MB: Yeah, this installation process has been quite fascinating, because this is basically everything that I have in my space. I’m basically emptying out my studio and using everything in it for an installation, and then I’m going to take it down and bring it back to my studio. But as I move stuff out, it allows me to process more stuff, just because I ran out of room. [Laughter.] So I keep making things; I work here all day and then I go home and make some stuff and bring that. This [pictured above] is the batch from last night. So it’s all pieces, and it’s all residues; I’m not really making anything new. But actually putting the pieces together, there’s only so much space. [Laughter.]
JL: It’s almost a snowball effect because you’re taking parts of past installations and then incorporating them into future installations, which you can continue to dismantle and then reassemble. Will you take parts of All that is not very much and rework them into future pieces?
MB: Definitely. This piece is building its own specific history, and there are things here that did not exist before, and I will definitely take big pieces of it and make other pieces out of it. And one of my favorite things to do, especially because most of these are built out of tape, is that when you rip things apart, just the way that things rip or when you take glue off of glue, it leaves a very specific residue that then can be processed in a different way. This is a huge project, so I’m going to have so much material to work with.
It’s interesting that you say it’s a snowball effect; I read Robert Smithson’s essay on entropy, and specifically his piece that was the house that he covered with dirt [Partially Buried Woodshed] and just the way he talks about that process and what entropy is and how it works is very similar to the way that I think about these pieces, even though my process is completely actually separate from the natural environment.
JL: How long does it usually take you to install a piece? I understand that you have a total of three weeks in this space.
MB: It really depends on how much time I have. So, if somebody told me I had three days, then I would install in three days. The piece is really sometimes dictated by the amount of time I have and what types of help I have, because for every installation that I do, I look at the space, and it’s a response to the space in a very particular way. And there are many responses that you can have to a space; some of them are much more complex than others, and it’s not like one piece is better than another—it’s just a specific response.
For the installations, I do tons of studies—material studies—figuring out, for instance, how can I install things on a brick wall—I have a brick wall at my home—so I do all these very particular studies. [Mara shows me her sketchbook.] This is the master plan for that [installation], and this [sketch] is done in two minutes, but it’s not done until I actually start installing. For all of my best laid plans, usually it’s nothing close to what I was planning on doing, but I have to set all the parameters up. And if you really think about this piece itself, it’s probably a thousand hours’ worth of work, because if you think about every single component being a part of another piece, and if you think about that snowball effect, what I’m doing right now is just basically tacking. [Laughter.]
JL: Because you can’t predict how a piece will respond to a space until you actually install it, how much changes between that original two-dimensional sketch and the finished piece? How often do you normally stick to what you had planned?
MB: I never stick to what I planned, and I always intend on sticking to what I planned. I love the idea of having a plan and executing it; for me, if I could make a piece that way, I would be in heaven. But my way of making is very much responding to a process or a material in a moment. I start with a structure, and that structure is usually what I plan, and then everything else—where that piece of blue goes—is totally dependent on what happens over here and what happens over here, and so it’s really an intuitive response to materials and space, and that won’t change. I know it won’t, I would love for it to change, but it won’t, and that’s just how it works.
JL: Have you encountered an especially challenging space in the past where you thought, “Oh, this is crazy!”?
MB: Yeah! I tend to install pieces in more alternative spaces, which I love, actually, because it gives you more stuff to work with, but probably the hardest space I had was a stairway. At that point, I was working with pumping systems and didn’t have a ladder, and it was just unwieldy. It was just awful, and I didn’t think I could do it. Usually, I get into a space and I’m like, “OK, this is what I’m going to do,” and I respond to something and I like it, or I say, “This is a problem; how can I use it to my advantage?” I eventually worked my way around it, but I don’t think it was the most successful piece. [Laughter.]
JL: I actually have installed a piece in a stairwell before! My first year of college.
MB: Yeah? And it worked?
JL: I was happy with it and it was ultimately successful. Along the way, however, I got into deep trouble because I thought it was an abandoned stairwell, but people were still using it!
MB: Right! Yes! That was my problem! People still had to use the stairwell, so there were only so many things I could do to respond to it.
JL: I understand completely!
MB: Exactly. There are levels; this space is alternative and it has a brown wall and a brick wall, but it’s huge, and it’s a rectangle, and it’s got windows, and it’s got the perfect amount of personality, yet it’s enough of a blank slate for me to go back and forth between those two aspects of it, which is ideal for me.
JL: With this space, have you confronted any challenges while installing your work, or has installation generally been smooth?
MB: It’s been pretty smooth. I think, partially, that is because I’ve done a lot of these types of pieces, so I’m very good at putting everything in my car and having every single tool I could possibly need; I think it’s just practice. And then also the fact that the people [Anna Trier, Hadley Vogel, and Meredith Weber] who run the space are artists, so they kind of get what it takes to install a piece and are therefore very helpful. This has been really easy for me. [Laughter.] If you talked to me on Tuesday night, I would’ve said something different, but that was just because something kept falling over, but right now, I feel pretty good about it.
JL: What do you plan on doing after this show?
MB: Talking about going back and forth between making large, unwieldy things and small, particular things, I’ve started making books, which I love. They’re large and small at the same time. I have a lot of books that I’ve started that I just haven’t had a chance to work on because of all this type of stuff, but that’s definitely in my future.
I also work in collaboration with another artist, Rafael E. Vera. We did two installation shows last year together, and we have a show coming up in Kansas City this summer in a huge space. And he is everything that I was talking about: that very controlled, precise way of working.
Collaborating is really an interesting process; you learn so much about yourself and all that type of stuff. Also, the work becomes interesting because there’s a conflict built into the way we work together, and that can be disastrous, but we’ve done it together for quite a while. After that, we’re going to be working on some sculptural pieces together. That’s the biggest thing on the horizon. There are little things here and there, but that’s kind of the next big thing that’s happening. I’m just going to keep making lots and lots of stuff. [Laughter.]
JL: What are the differences between working individually and collaborating with another artist? For you, what are the advantages and disadvantages of collaboration?
MB: The advantages are that you can make work that you would never be able to make by yourself, and if you choose the right people to collaborate with, you’re able to feed and bounce a particular understanding off of each other in a way that can create really productive, fruitful work. I think also the advantage of collaborating is that it informs my own studio practice, and so how I make with him informs how I make by myself in a really productive way, because it makes me much more aware of my strengths and my weaknesses in a way that you can’t really get at when you’re introspectively working in your studio. There are all sorts of things that I want to make that I have in my head that I can’t, because I don’t have the skills or maybe even the conceptual capability of getting there, and when you collaborate with somebody, it allows you to bring two heads together and do that, and vice versa.
And I think what makes it work is a shared aesthetic vision, ultimately—it doesn’t mean your work has to look the same, but I think you agree on a lot of things—and then also a really healthy level of respect. I’d been working with him now for a year and a half, and it’s had its ups and downs [laughter] but I’m really glad that I’m doing it, and it’s great. Our pieces are on my website, so if you’re curious—it’s under “Collaboration”—we’ve done drawings and also site-specific installations.
JL: What are some goals you have for yourself as an artist and for your career? What would you like to accomplish?
MB: I have this rule that every three years I reevaluate where I am, and I’ve always said that if I’m not happy, I should walk away, that I’m not going to stick doggedly to making because I went to graduate school and I spent all this money. [Laughter.] The answer, as of yet, has always been, “Keep making,” and that this makes me incredibly happy.
Every year, I set mini goals for what I want to accomplish in the coming year, and I’ve always said that I want to be in at least four shows a year, and every year for those shows to be more ambitious and pushing me a lot further, so I always want to push myself, and I have.
For me, it’s about work ethic and also engagement with the community. I also teach [at the College of DuPage], and I love teaching, so all these things come together in different ways, and what my goal for a particular year is dependent on where I was last year.
But ultimately, if something better came up—it’s really hard for me to imagine at what point that would happen—then I hope that I would have the courage to say, “All right, see ya! Bye!” [Laughter.]
JL: That is a great way of thinking! More people should incorporate that outlook into their lives.
MB: They should! There are so many long-suffering artists, and yes, I have no money, and it takes a ton of trust and faith, and I’m faced with failure and rejection everyday, but ultimately I’m really happy. If that’s not true, then it’s not worth it.
JL: Yes, everyone should follow your advice.
MB: [Laughter.] That being said, I really love making things, and it’s what makes me the most happy, so my goal is to find a way where I can live in this world and do what I love. And maybe have four jobs the rest of my life.
For more information about Mara Baker, visit www.marabaker.com.
Jenny Lam blogs at Artists on the Lam. Her Twitter handle is @TheJennyLam.