STUDIO VISIT WITH VADIS TURNER
Vadis Turner is an American mixed-media artist living in Nashville, Tennessee. She is an accomplished artist, showing in museums such as The Frist and Brooklyn Museum, yet always looking for avenues for more creative problems to solve. She embraces the bad stages of an artwork and strives to transform materials beyond how they “should” exist. We spoke in late August virtually, as she was working towards exhibitions at Zeitgeist gallery and The Huntsville Museum of Art, both set to open in 2022.
Interview Between Amy Boone-McCreeesh and Vadis Turner
A: WHERE IS YOUR STUDIO & HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN THERE?
T: I live in Nashville, TN and my studio is in Gallatin which is about half an hour from downtown Nashville. My studio is actually in my grandparents’ house. I guess I’ve really been making things in this house my whole life, but I brought my aspiring professional game here four years ago when we moved from New York.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY DRIVES YOUR WORK, AND HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE ARC OF YOUR INTERESTS?
My goal is that by the time I’m 70 I will have whittled my artist statement down to seven words. I just want to distill it down (the work and the words) to the most essential elements possible. I’m not close to seven words, but in short, my practice is about exploring the transformative abilities of domestic materials. Wait, that’s closer to seven words than I thought.
Making work, for me, is not about coming up with an idea and just doing that idea. To execute an idea sucks all the air out of it. The creative journey or process, I hope, is curious and surprising.
I give myself permission to start with really bad ideas. I welcome them and share them liberally at studio visits to make room for better ones. I make a lot of really bad, really embarrassing drawings. I want to disorient myself from where I was before and figure out where to go with it. I was recently discussing with someone if and why art should be hard. And are we such assholes for waxing and waning about how hard it is? I don’t know the answer, but I don’t mind difficult. There is a fine line between difficult and stimulating. Having stimulating work that drives you to problem solve is such a gift. It forces you to grow and that’s hard. And that’s the point right? Sometimes you have to put yourself in the way of being moved.
So what motivates me is giving myself the space to make something really bad and then I have to redirect my way into new forms and relationships that were once foreign, mysterious, and confusing. I want to work through that and find meaning in it.
Right now, I’m trying to harness the energy of mess. There’s more luminosity and more content within a mess than there is within a totally formed or tamed shape. So these grids that I’ve been working with are structures that come with expectations, and I want them to hold onto that identity yet be really messed up. I just think there’s more to sink your teeth into there.
CAN YOU TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOUR PREFERRED MATERIALS RIGHT NOW?
The path behind me is littered with many different materials that all come from the domestic sphere, be it structural or interior or exterior. I’ve used a lot of retired textiles. Sheets and bedding that have been slept in for countless hours by members of my community. They’re all charged with this stilled state of human activity. I love working with bedsheets but have recently transitioned into working with curtains. I am knotting them up into shifty grids with mashed up ruffles. I’ve been thinking a lot about window treatments and how they can embody the spectacle of a “hot mess”. How can she or they become a window? Ultimately, how can the curtains become a window and how can that window traverse into the landscape?
I’m not completely tied to textiles. Sometimes, I’m interested in how to take the textile out of the textile. How can I make something malleable and soft into something fixed and rigid? How can I take something that’s horizontal in the home and put it up right on the wall? How do I make it unruly or disorderly? So I want every material to be manipulated in a way that dissociates it from its intended purpose or function. I hate “supposed to.”
CAN YOU TALK ABOUT YOUR USE OF COLOR OR HOW YOU DEAL WITH EXISTING COLOR ON AN EXISTING TEXTILE OR MATERIAL?
I have a real love and sensitivity to color relationships. Actually, I taught a color class at Pratt Institute for ten years. It makes me laugh because now my color use has become quite limited and I am mainly focused on three colors. That choice came from the realization that editing is everything. Earlier in my practice, I had been using more bells and whistles than I want to use now. I think that diluted the content a bit. I once had a writing teacher who said you have to “lose your darlings”. Anything you like too much or that’s more precious than the rest you have to get rid of. Or maybe that’s the only thing you keep. Either way, you have to identify the essential elements. To say as much as I can with as few elements as possible. In my work and in my life, I’m trying to make it as simple and strong as I can. It’s a challenge, but a great one.
I FEEL LIKE YOUR WORK EXISTS IN A MAGICAL PLACE BETWEEN PAINTING AND SCULPTURE. WAS THAT A DELIBERATE CHOICE?
At times it’s been a terrible accident, and other times exactly what I want to be dealing with. I love that you said the work is between painting and sculpture because I don’t want anything to be easily classifiable. I like things that we don’t know what to do with or how to file away. I like that in people, film, food, etc. I like when different categories bleed together.
I sank into this idea when I started working with the bedsheets. A sheet is very flat and thin and then I turn it into something that’s bulky and rigid. It starts to misbehave when it goes from being on a bed to being on a wall. I want it to stumble into a new identity, a brassier one. In this vein, Harmony Hammond and Lee Bontecou’s wall works are beautiful, bossy and super inspiring. My first bedsheet exploration resulted in a series of megaliths that I showed at the University of Colorado in 2019. The terrible accident part is when I try to lift all this stuff in my studio by myself! I don’t want to wait for help. The physical relationship I have with this stuff is intense. But it’s very meditative sometimes too. I am relieved to have some smaller pieces in the works.
IT’S HARD TO EXIST RIGHT NOW, LET ALONE MAKE ARTWORK; ARE THERE ANY COPING MECHANISMS YOU USE IN OR OUT OF THE STUDIO THAT YOU FIND HELPFUL?
Coming to the studio, even to get my ass kicked, has been my solace throughout the pandemic. I am so grateful to have a studio to go to and unfurl in.
Sure, it was hard to get in there when the schools were closed. I loved the extended, seemingly endless, time with my kids, but the work has been the part that’s helped me to maintain my identity. If I can manage to close my laptop. Actually, I should just get rid of my desk in here entirely.
DO YOU HAVE ANY EXHIBITIONS OR PROJECTS YOU’D LIKE TO PROMOTE
Well, thank you for including me in your project. Your studio visit series has honed in on many wonderful female artists working in regions that often get overlooked. I’m so glad you asked me to participate.
I’m grateful to be in a sweet spot with my work. To simply be in it feels so good. I’m past the bad drawings and stabbing in the dark. The stars aren’t totally aligned, but I think having it all worked out is kind of overrated. I know that whatever happens it won’t fail. I will produce a show. I just have to sweat out the content for the next five months. To make it as strong as I can. I have a solo show coming up at Zeitgeist in Nashville in February 2022. Then I have another at the Huntsville Museum of Art in Alabama in July 2022.
DO YOU HAVE ANY ENTERTAINMENT PICKS OR HOBBIES THAT HAVE GOTTEN YOU THROUGH THE PANDEMIC?
I walk and swim laps. In terms of entertainment, I’m reading Everything She Touches: The Life of Ruth Asawa by Marilyn Chase. I’ve been listening to several audio books; there’s Women and Madness by Phyllis Chesler, Anna Karenina by Tolsty and another that’s really beautiful called The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene. It breaks down string theory for people like me who want to know and left that language far behind in high school. I watched two films recently that resonated with me. A little late to the party here but, Captain Fantastic with Viggo Mortensen and Fantastic Fungi are stuck in my head. My five year old son thinks the mushroom documentary is especially beautiful!