Edith Hillinger: Building a Life, San Francisco, June 2006
by Richard Whittaker, June 24, 2006
This interview originally appeared in Works & Conversations
Note: Please see the May 2012 Works and Conversations magazine (print version) for a portfolio of Hillinger's recent work.
WHEN I FIRST MET EDITH HILLINGER SEVERAL YEARS AGO, I was quickly charmed by her openness, intelligence, humor and her quiet, but obvious, inner balance. Born in Germany, her family fled the Nazis and made their way to Istanbul where her father, an architect, found work with Bruno Taut who also had fled Germany. Hillinger grew up in Istanbul and later, at the age of sixteen, immigrated with her mother to New York City.
Besides having been an architectural project manager for UCSF, Hillinger taught both at the School of Visual Arts in New York and then later at the California College of Arts and Crafts. For several years, Hillinger has followed a Buddhist practice, which bears a strong complementary relationship with her artwork.
We spoke before an audience at the Togonon Gallery in San Francisco surrounded by an exhibit of Hillinger’s recent work.
Richard Whittaker: Well, I didn’t quite know where to start. Edith is one of those artists for whom making art is a real search, one that has persisted for years and years. But there’s also the quite interesting story about your life. Having been born in Germany, your family had to flee the Nazis when you were still quite young. And you ended up in Turkey living in Istanbul, where you spent most of your childhood until you moved to New York at sixteen or so. So I thought maybe we could start there with your family being uprooted and then living in Turkey. Could you tell us a little about that?
Edith Hillinger: Our family was caught up in the turmoil that millions and millions of people were caught up in, which is the beginnings of the second World War, and the displacement of people from many countries. But really, it all goes back so much further. This is the interesting thing about history and the threads of history. If you start pulling at the threads, you start going back further and further. One of the reasons we wound up in Turkey was because Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, had connections to Germany early on in the 1920s, so already you’re back in an earlier time. He invited scientists and architects, like my father, to come to Turkey to help him found a modern university to train young Turks in all kinds of disciplines. And the fact that my father was in Germany also goes back to the 1920s. He was a Hungarian Jew born in 1895. When he came back from the First World War, he wanted to attend the university in Budapest to study architecture, but just at that time they had had an uprising, which was blamed on a Jew, and the universities were suddenly closed to all Jews. That propelled him to Germany, to Berlin to study architecture. So that was the beginning of our family history, because my father looked for a room to rent and knocked on a door. That was where my mother lived. Her parents were renting out rooms to students. They were German Protestants. So that’s how everything is so intertwined, both in the personal history and in the larger domains of national histories.
My parents had a lot of difficulty getting out of Germany. My mother was not Jewish, but she understood, as my father did, that if they stayed they would both be killed. They didn’t have any illusions about that. They understood that perfectly, since my father had already fled once. They tried to go to different countries, but you couldn’t really leave Germany unless you had some kind of invitation to go someplace. You couldn’t just cross the border. They wouldn’t allow that.
So my father’s mentor was Bruno Taut, who was a German architect, not Jewish. He fled Nazi Germany because he was a Communist, a well-known Communist, and the Nazis hated the Communists as well. Bruno Taut was on a world tour at that time. First he went to R ussia. Since he was a Communist, he thought that would be Nirvana, but when you get to Russia it’s a little different from being a Communist at a distance. [laughs] So that didn’t sit well with him. Then he ended up in Japan, and he was enormously interested in Japanese architecture.
In his time, Bruno Taut was really well known as one of the founders of modern architecture. Anyway, then he went to Turkey, where he didn’t live very long. But when he heard of my father’s plight—they had worked together in Germany—he convinced the government in Turkey to send for my father. My mother saved all the documents, which are very interesting. I put them into the archives at the Academy in Berlin this past year. I still had the telegram from Bruno Taut to my father saying, "Come right away!" There was a job offer from Turkey. That’s what saved our lives, basically.
We went on the Orient Express. I haven’t been able to find out where we boarded the train, because I don’t think it went to Berlin. Anyway my father went three months ahead of us to get settled and then we left. My mother’s family stayed behind because they were not Jewish, and they actually survived the war.
From the time I was three and a half to when I was almost sixteen we lived in Turkey. Then we sailed for the United States on a very small freighter in the midst of October storms. My mother was a phenomenally healthy woman until she was in her nineties, but everybody on the boat was seasick, all seven passengers, including the captain. I remember my mother taking care of everybody.
RW: You must speak Turkish.
EH: I did speak fluent Turkish, but it's not really with me anymore.
RW: How do you think your childhood in Turkey has affected you.
EH: Well, I've thought about it. I still get very upset when I view programs about the Nazi era, the killings. My father's brother died in Auschwitz, so it's a very upsetting thing. Yet I'm grateful that I didn't grow up in Germany. The gift of that whole trauma is that I went to a country that for my artistic development was much more interesting. I never see myself wanting to have had the middle class German childhood. Strangely, I much prefer my refugee childhood. But my brother went back to live in Germany in the sixties! That's where he lives. He's a professor there. It's this western, homogenized neat, orderly society.
RW: I see, the German model.
EH: That model seems gray and uniform, to me. Istanbul is a wild bazaar, a wild chaos of color, languages, food, everything mixing! It was like an early version of New York. It was full of life and full of color. My grandmother, on the outskirts of Berlin, had one or two oriental poppies in her garden, but when we got to Istanbul, there were fields and fields of red poppies as far as the eye could see! It was a whole other kind of thing. That's what I think I was really happy with.
RW: All that life.
EH: The color, the life, the variety, everything! It's strange to say, but because of the war, I landed in a place that I really loved.
RW: Well, as you say, once you start pulling on a thread of history and start unraveling it, you see that it connects to more history and more history. And I’m wondering if you’d agree that the same is true of artwork? That every piece of art in one’s practice must have a history that’s a little analogous.
EH: I think so, but I think it’s a lot harder to unravel and untangle because a lot of it is unconscious. People look back at their work five years from now, ten years from now and often see new things and often think, "Oh, maybe that’s what the work is about." It’s more like untangling dreams, in a way, than history. There’s history on a different level. Lots of what might be going through your mind in a painting is very ephemeral. It’s here one moment, gone the next. So it’s difficult to reconstruct. You do it by associations.
RW: Have you reflected, because you’ve been doing this for so long, have you reflected on what some of the early roots might be of your own work?
EH: I have. Julina [Julina Togonon] came over last Sunday. That was kind of interesting, because we went through work of the seventies and the eighties. One thing that is very consistent is the use of materials. The use of photography goes back to the eighties. But charcoal lines mixed with other media have been with me for a very long time. They keep popping up again and again. You revisit things in different forms. But I don’t want to assign a single meaning to any work because it’s layered. I’m never quite sure I’ll see it that way at some other time, although the botanical associations have been there.
RW: I remember you telling me about time you spent as a very young child in your grandmother’s garden in Germany.
EH: I associate my love of nature and of plants with my grandmother who was wonderful at growing everything. My parents really didn’t have much interest in plants or animals, like I have. They were very much "city" people. I don’t think they even had a philodendron [laughs].
My grandmother and grandfather had a very small family farm on the outskirts of Berlin. She was good with everything: with little goats and chickens and pigs, and they may have had a horse or two. I didn’t really see the big animals at that age. My grandfather had an orchard with various fruit trees and they grew their own vegetables. There was a flower garden in front of their house. And their house was designed by my father. It was his first architectural project, to design the house for my mother’s parents and to acquire the land for them. The way he got the land was by designing a drainage system for a large landowner. He was awarded a piece of the property as payment, and that became the farm of my grandparents.
So I often was sitting next to my grandmother as she was tending the animals and the plants and the flowers. She had poppies in her garden, too—and then getting to Turkey and seeing these familiar plants, seeing that plants travel just like people do. Poppies travel all over the world. Many of our plants are from China. They’re migrants, too. I think that was a source of comfort for me. Everything else was unfamiliar, the people, the language, the customs, but plants were familiar, in some way. I remember sitting under a pomegranate tree just when the fruit would fall and burst open, just studying the way the seeds inside looked.
RW: What was that like, looking at those pomegranates?
EH: I think it was a non-threatening relationship that took me out of myself. The family relationships, and the relationships with others, were always fraught with various problems. And the war was very difficult on my parents. My mother was very attached to her family, so she felt cut-off. My father, the more gregarious one, was quite nervous about not being able to save his brother, and the loss of his family, too. And having to flee a second time, already. So there was all this unspoken stuff. I don't know what it would have been like to have had a family life that wasn't overlaid with all these sorrows that the adults had.
RW: Are there any other experiences you would include, and what do you think of these experiences, that they persist and are still present?
EH: What comes to mind is that these experiences are beyond the stories we tell others about ourselves, and therefore, they're more true, in a way. The stories we tell others sort of become set in concrete. They reflect the way we want others to see us. Those early experiences go beyond those more superficial stories.
RW: Do you remember being in gardens in Turkey?
EH: It wasn’t so much gardens, but the poppies grew wild in the fields. My parents took us on walks over the hills on both sides of the Bosporus every weekend, and we’d see fields of flowers. They’d just be there in the summertime, although there were little gardens of wisteria and things like that, too.
RW: Do you think that a lot of art is sort of an avenue back to these early experiences?
EH: Everything has gone hand-in-hand for me without my always realizing it. I've been involved in making art for forty or fifty years, My struggles as a person, feelings of loneliness, personal relationships, my study of Buddhism and meditation, whatever I am going through, in some way it comes out in the work. It finds its way there, and is somehow expressed, but I don't always realize that. I don't say, "Now I'm going to illustrate such and such." I think the work comes from the same place that dreams come from.
RW: That's interesting. Could you say more about that?
EH: I dreamt last night that for some reason I was with the woman ambassador from Turkey, and we were going to a banquet. At the banquet, I was suddenly on my own, and I couldn't find a place at the table. Hundreds of people were seated, but there was no place for me at the table. That was an interesting dream.
You have to live with your paintings for a long time to learn from them. Like dreams, paintings tell you about yourself. For a long time I didn't realize it, but I was viewing my own paintings for an inadequate period of time. I would put them away too fast and go on to the next thing without spending time looking and looking and looking. It's just in the last couple of years that I have realized this, that I need to spend more time with my work. I put things up now and sometimes they're up for months.
RW: Getting back to history here, was your father influenced by Bruno Taut’s Japanese collections? And did that Japanese influence come into your home?
EH: Yes. I’ll get to that. But I wanted to say that I’m working on a little international project with David Cohn right now. You grow a seed and then you photograph it as it grows. Then he makes a virtual field of plants on the web and connects all these different artists through the seeds. Well, yesterday, I got an email from the people in Berlin who are planting seeds. It was like a thread coming around, having left Berlin and now being connected with artists planting seeds back in Berlin.
RW: That’s lovely.
EH: Now you were asking did a Japanese influence come in? Yes. Soon after we came to Turkey, Bruno Taut died. In his will, he left a portion of his Japanese collection to my father. That included a scroll and that’s why I paint the narrow paintings, as you see [pointing]. It included a case full of fans and toys that I played with, and that I still have. I’ve always been interested in Japanese culture and now Japanese gardens, as well. That came from that connection, I think.
RW: A few days ago we were talking. You’d said something about how the work is connected to your life. Is this too broad a question to talk about?
EH: I think that are various kinds of art. Some artists take on political questions and others take on scientific questions. And there are people who really do it out of their lives. Morandi comes to mind, and those bottles, one of my favorite artists. He lived at home with his three sisters for all his life and painted his bottles. Yet, in a way, his paintings are universal maybe because they so authentically reflect his interests. My interest is plants and gardens. What’s been happening, well maybe this is the time to look at the watercolor… Back in 1999 or so, I started painting again by looking at a single petal.
RW: Well, maybe we can put this in context. You hadn’t been painting for four or five years. You’d been through a recent divorce. Your mother had gotten quite ill and had died. So there were several years there where you hadn’t painted at all.
EH: And during that period of time I built myself a studio-home. Then I moved into it and I started to go back to painting. However, I found it very difficult.
Whenever a long period of time elapses, years, it’s very difficult to find a way of working again. That’s why I don’t like to be away from my work. This was the longest period I had been away. I focused on plants from my garden, but for a whole year, I just threw away one thing after another. I was painting just the most conventional views, which didn’t get me anywhere. I couldn’t get beyond the surface appearance.
Then one day—I had this vase of poppies in my studio and there was a white paper under them on the table. I came in from the garden and one of the red poppy petals with the black center had fallen on the white paper. I saw that shape and color and it was like a door opened.
I saw that shape and color in a way that I never had before. I was suddenly free to paint. I felt very much able to go beyond the conventional. That was the beginning of something that I followed for three or four years: single petals, air-dried or pressed, or a collection of petals. They seem very abstract to people, but in a way, that’s because they’re looking at something they don’t really ever look at very closely. It’s actually very representational, although it’s a record of what is there, and also very abstract, at the same time.
So that was the beginning of being reconnected. I know that you asked me earlier, what is that moment like when you see something in this new way? And I’ve been thinking about it. In this instance, it was a very definite thing like a door opening, or maybe like a birdcage opening and you can suddenly fly out. It happened after a long dry spell, and was a very sudden thing. But it’s not always like that. Sometimes that change comes in small increments.
RW: Here’s the painting of that petal [turning it toward the audience]. Now you’d talked about how painting is connected to one’s life, the kind of painting you practice, a kind of searching. After knowing something about your life out of which this painting of the poppy petal came, I couldn’t help but see a torso, a neck and chest here, and a great sort of dark space in the center, then all this vibrant red of new life around it. That’s what I saw. But, in any case, it was an opening for you. It’s very mysterious.
EH: It’s mysterious to me, too. I guess it always will be.
RW: It seems to me that in the work here in the gallery which only spans about four years, that there’s a bit of a transition toward brighter color going on, starting from those scrolls up to these two studies hanging over there. I wonder if you could reflect a little on your relationship with color over the years.
EH: I can tell you a color story. I went to Cooper Union in New York where we had a teacher who had been trained at the Bauhaus. He gave us assignments about color. He knew a great deal about color theory from Albers to Goethe to everyone who had ever had a color theory. There was something called color-aid paper, four hundred shades or something. Our assignment was to go to the art store and get some and then illustrate the theory he had just been lecturing us about. I’m not a very good person with precision, exacto-knife and glue—those are not my main talents. We were supposed to cut these into perfect one-inch squares, and I was never happy with the results. He always said to me, "Well, that’s really beautiful, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the theory." [laughs]
RW: That’s beautiful! [laughs]
EH: I think he was right. So I can tell you I don’t follow any color theory. Color is very intuitive, but it also brings us to a state of mind and where one is in one’s life. Color represents that, whether it’s a joyous period or a dark period and what you’re in touch with at that moment. Over time there could be, as Julina saw, some very dark work, a lot of work with charcoal. That was a different time. Now is more a time of feeling very connected to nature, feeling fairly joyous a good part of the time. Those are the feelings coming out in color.
RW: Is there sometimes a moment, when you’ve got your pastels spread out there and you’ve been working with a certain palette, you like this color and that one, and some of the sticks you don’t use are much longer, then all of a sudden you find yourself picking up that bright orange, do you know that moment I’m speaking about?
EH: Well, I’m now working with photographs, so color is starting there. I’m photographing, then working in Photoshop. Then I’m printing the photos out on a pigment printer. So now I already have some given colors. [gets up and walks over to one of her pieces] For instance, this painting is different from the others. My printer can print 17 inches wide. So there are two pieces of printed photograph per panel of triptych.
In this case here, it’s different because the whole background is photography. In some of the others, the photographs are spaced with white paper between them, although you don’t see that once I start to paint over it. For instance, that one doesn’t have photographs all behind the painting. There are three or four placed in different areas. In here, there’s a huge background photograph into which other photographs are dropped.
But I’m saying this because now I already have color when I start out and I’m reacting to that color. Photographing is very fast. In the obituary for Cartier-Bresson in the NY Times, they said that towards the end of his life he decided that photography was too fast and he took up drawing. Well, the initial shot of the photography is fast, but if you’re working now on it and painting, the reaction time can be as long as you want it to be. So in part, I’m having to deal with the colors that are already in the photograph. That’s different from starting just on a blank page.
RW: Can you tell us more about this process? What do you do? As we can see, there are colors you’ve painted. Can you tell us about this process?
EH: I’m not a photographer by training. My use of photography goes back to the 1980s. A lot of artists started to use color xerox transfers in the United States in the 1980s. I would take materials, either cut out of magazines, like collage artists do, or I would put things on the Xerox machine and print it out on heat-transfer paper, do a quick charcoal drawing on paper and then cut up the photographs and iron them on over the charcoal.
That was my first use of photographs. I did this in various forms for about four or five years. Then the technology wasn’t going anywhere. I think Xerox thought this was going to be a huge seller for business, but the reality was that only artists were using it. They weren’t making any money. So I went on to other things. I dropped using photographs for a while. I didn’t even own a camera. Then in 1999, I was going to France and I bought my first digital camera. I was just going to do tourist stuff. But I have to say that digital was perfect for me. I want to have control over the whole process. So along with the digital camera, I started to teach myself Photoshop because Photoshop is to digital camera what the darkroom is to film. Soon I was shooting away every day in the garden.
I worked on heat transfer scrolls, which are the bridge that connects the watercolors and these panel paintings. Perhaps not fully realized work, but it was a bridge, a solid little bridge.
RW: Well, I was wondering about your process from a different standpoint, too. Like… [getting up and walking over to a large painting] Why do you paint this? [pointing] You make decisions. You make lines here, painting colors there. Is it like dreaming?
EH: I can explain it to some extent. One of the things I need to do, which is very difficult, and Janet and I talked about it a little [Janet Norris]. A photograph is very perfect, in a way. It has a perfection to it that is hard to ignore. So anything you do to it is a kind of destruction. And it’s hard to destroy even the worst photograph, I find.
RW: You mean, inwardly you resist that?
EH: Yes. Emotionally. You feel you’re destroying something. But the painting won’t come into its own unless I destroy it many times over. So one of the functions of the charcoal line is— I do the charcoal line with such speed that the conscious mind can’t control it. I just cover the whole surface in a few seconds, and that breaks the stalemate of where I may be, and gives rise to new forms that I can then work with. So it opens things up.
RW: So you do that, and then you look at it. Then you may have an impulse, "well, maybe a little red in here." Or something. How does that work?
EH: It’s a reaction. For instance, I started this painting by having a relation with this photograph and this photograph. Out of the forms that were there grew this—which is partly charcoal and partly acrylic. That’s an unconscious process. I can’t tell you why mind suddenly put this here. It just appears! And then it works or it doesn’t work. If it doesn’t, you destroy it again—until something comes up that seems to work.
RW: And that’s very interesting, this sort of mysterious moment when "something works"— you do this and then that, and you look at it and "yeah, it works!" Right?
EH: We don’t even know exactly why it works.
RW: Right. So do you find sometimes when you look at old work, that you understand more about it? This goes back to the question of how the painting really relates to my life, comes from it.
EH: Well, there’s no question in my mind that the painting is always, no matter what the subject, a type of self-portrait. It’s where you are at that time in your life, who you are, what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling. That’s how it’s going to come out on the canvas. In that sense, it’s maybe not so different than a dream, because dreams often deal with current concerns. Your paintings are probably the same way, but you can pull out this thread and that thread and that other thread, but I’m not sure you can always totally know why you did this or that. It’s a response that you yourself don’t understand. But there is a point where you say, "Okay. That works for me. I can live with that." And "No. I can’t go any further with this." And you go on to something else.
RW: At that moment, does one feel satisfied in some way?
EH: Well, usually, it’s been such a struggle and you’ve had to go through so many destructions, that it feels pretty good! [laughs]
Having a show is very nice and it looks beautiful, but it’s always a kind of break, and it’s always a little scary. Because suddenly everything leaves the studio, and there you are. I always feel, for a few days, like I can’t work. I feel lost. And when I feel lost, I always do the same thing. I go off in a million directions. Maybe I should do this. Or this. Or this. [laughs] And then I settle down.
RW: When I visited you a few days ago and walked into your studio, there were those six or seven paintings on the wall.
EH: They were photos.
RW: Well, you’d drawn on them. Scribbled. I walked in and "Gosh! Look at that!" Right away I was attracted to them. They were about this big.
EH: Yes. 16" x 17"
RW: In the center of each you’d either scribbled or photoshoped an amorphous area. As we sat chatting I kept glancing over at them and somehow in the course of conversation it came up that your mother had macular degeneration in her eyes. You described how it works. The center of vision begins to give way. So you were exploring something there.
EH: But that may be the problem with that batch of stuff that I did quickly. It’s too literal. There’s too much of a conscious level connection. I prefer that that not be the case. So I’ll probably chuck the whole thing. [laughs]
RW: The words of a true artist! [laughs]
EH: I don’t like to illustrate an idea. It never works. I mean that’s just not what I do.
RW: You said you do art work in order to learn, so is this an example of what you're talking about?
EH: Yes. When you visited with me before, you asked, "How can you still be painting after forty years with so little recognition?" I didn't really have an answer to that, but I realized, it's not that difficult! That's not really where the deepest pleasure is. I mean, it's very nice to get a show and all that, but that comes and goes very quickly, you know? That's here and done, but the work, that deepens and deepens; you can keep growing until you die.
RW: I don't doubt for a second what you're saying, but what is it that one is getting?
EH: Well, when I say it's not so hard, that's a little bit of an oversimplification, because you can have moments that are very hard. You can be envious when somebody is having a great show. You wish you were having that recognition! But then you have wonderful, wonderful moments when you are able to do things you weren't able to do before. You feel yourself growing. That's pretty wonderful.
RW: Can you give us an example?
EH: I feel an avenue of exploration has opened up with this new work that will be going on for me for a long time.
RW: Going back to the dream you described that you had last night—it’s fascinating. You were on your way to a banquet with the ambassador from Turkey…
EH: I couldn't find a place to sit at that banquet. There was no place at the table for me, but I don't know. It's too recent. The dreaming and the painting are very closely connected.
RW: Do you ponder your dreams?
EH: I do. But only once have I painted a scene from a dream. Some stay with me for a very long time, or I write them down.
RW: Are you a student of Freud or Jung?
EH: A long time ago. When I was in college. Now I read poetry and Buddhist texts, and the lives of artists.
RW: Do you have a Buddhist practice?
EH: I do. I see my Buddhist teacher, Darlene Cohen, once a month at the San Francisco Zen Center. And I try to meditate daily. I see the parallels in the two practices. Both require devotion and constancy of practice-and the elimination of extraneous, unnecessary things, a quiet mind.
You know, at the meeting at my studio, you'd talked about Agnes Martin's writing, and I said I couldn't stand her severity. I had tried to read her writings when I came back from Spain, full of the Spanish paintings and new things, and I couldn't do it. Then I went back and tried again, and I realized that she's speaking to many of the things I'm struggling with. I'm struggling with being alone in the studio. It's always been very difficult for me, yet I need a whole lot of time to be alone in the studio.
I understand when she's talking about how you feel one thing, and if you follow that, it is a road to happiness. And the other direction is the road to unhappiness. I understand that perfectly. Those two things are always struggling within me.
RW: Well, I could go on with more questions, but maybe some of you have questions.
Question: Edith I have been reading John Dewey’s "Art As Experience" and what you’ve been saying fits right in with what he says art is, an application of everything that has happened to you in the past brought up through the materials you are trying to manipulate in the present. The past doesn’t go away, and it feeds into what you’re doing in the present.
EH: I think it does. Yes. I’m trying to remember something Annie Dillard said, "Art is a way of reconnecting the past to the present."
Question: One thing I was thinking when you were trying to get Edith to say something concrete. It’s very difficult using another language, words, especially if you work the way she does.
RW: Sometimes I feel like I’m subjecting artists to a certain amount of suffering.[laughs]
EH: No. I didn’t feel that. Actually what you bring up is an immensely interesting subject right now in the art world, which is the relationship between writing and the visual arts. We have a great example coming up at SFMOMA, which is Matthew Barney, about whom volumes have been written. [laughs] I founded a little artists group, which has been meeting once a month, and this is one of the things we’ve been talking about. Do the writings connect the viewer to the work? Do they stand as a wall between the viewer and the work? How does it function, really? Maybe it’s all of those things.
We’re living in a culture here in San Francisco and New York where people are coming in from all over the world with all these different cultures. Do you just let them have the relationship with the art that they bring to it? Let them take away whatever they can, or do you want to control it and tell them what to see and what to think? These are questions of the moment, and they’re interesting.
Visual artists are always asked to write, but I’ve never seen anyone go up to a poet and say, "Paint a picture of that poem. I want to see what you really mean." [laughs]
Question: When I first met Edith she said, "I’m interested in plants. They go through the same life processes that we do, but speeded up." I thought that was a wonderful statement. Think about it. Your work is transforming memories that you’re not fully conscious of, but if you think of plants, how do they transform memories? The memories are organic and they are part of the transformation. Perhaps that’s what your work is, it’s like the plant memory.
EH: That’s beautifully put. Kay is a poet.
RW: The other day when I was over there, Edith took me out in her beautiful garden and pointed to some plants, Gladwin Irises, the only irises that produce berries. You said, "Look here" and pointed to some seedpods on them. They had not produced berries the way you expected and you called the botanists at UC to find out why. They told you they were not being pollinated, and that half the honeybees have died here in California. So…
EH: …I took a watercolor brush and pollinated three of them, maybe four. They’re the only ones having berries. So I’m going to photograph them and write up this for Richard’s new web site. [thecanary.net]
RW: I want people to write about their own direct experiences of disturbing changes in the environment. I’ll
So with art, I don’t know if such environmental questions relate directly to your work, Edith, but what you bring up [addressing questioner, Kay Flavell] what does the plant remember? What do they hold for us? I couldn’t help being reminded of this moment with Edith in her garden.
EH: These things are in the plants’ bodies. There’s also the interconnectedness of nature. It’s a tapestry with millions of threads: the bees, the moths, the trees, the pollen. Everything is connected. You make a big hole in that tapestry and everything collapses. I realize human beings, first of all, respond to other human beings. They make noise. They talk. They hit each other on the head. Then the next thing is they respond to animals. Then there are plants, the most important residents on this earth, because without plants, none of us would be alive, but they’re silent. They don’t hit us over the head, so we don’t notice them. We just walk right by. We don’t know what the butterfly is doing. We don’t know what the cow is eating. We blank out on this most important part of life on earth. So if I could help make people realize how important plants are, that would make me happy.
Julina Togonon: It all gets screwed up in the commerce of art. People come here and they want an explanation. Many, many people who come to galleries just don’t have the confidence in their own responses. I’m sure that the institutions and the curators have a lot of responsibility for that. It’s all packaged. Well, it’s a struggle.
I’ve watched people. Most of the time, I’m sitting here and immediately they go over there. People are skittish in a gallery. Then they spend time somewhere where they’re alone. I think, "Well, that’s good because they’re looking at the work." Then they kind of sneak out, unless they’re interested in buying. Then they come and talk with me. I don’t know how you teach the audience to appreciate the art without giving them a lot of information, I guess.
EH: I think it’s partly because, you know, looking at a painting is a very quiet activity and we’re living in a world where everybody is bombarded with images that go by quickly. More and more people are not able to spend quiet time just with something and their brain, to spend any kind of time with something quiet.
RW: And we value answers so much more than questions.
EH: We value data, mountains of data. Have you ever turned on a sports program? You’d like to see somebody hit a ball or something. There are two guys talking. And he hit it seventy-two yards, ninety eight times, fifty-two times in this direction—they’re spewing forth data for some reason that I don’t understand. [laughs] Maybe data means you’re smart. We’re drowning in data, and I don’t know what it means.
RW: I don’t either. But I think that’s a wonderful thing to hear a gallery owner, say, Julina, appreciating both sides like that.
Question: When I worked at the British Pavilion at the Biennale, it’s very hot in there, and we had lots of mineral water, so we gave them out—free water! So people began coming back. In that environment, one single glass of cold water began to create a community. It was something to make people feel "here I’m safe. I’m welcome." A chair with a cushion. It gives the message, "It’s okay to sit here for a while."
Well, it’s wonderful to have these probing questions, but in the end, it’s the inability to really put it in words. Somebody said Mozart used to smell rotten apples before he started composing. It brought him into some state. Try to analyze that!
About the Author
Richard Whittaker is the founder of Works & Conversations magazine.