In combining a unique set of aesthetics and keen cultural observations as well as a shared love of getting a little dirty for the sake of art, sculptors and FSP Jerome Fellows Robyn Hasty and J MacDonald came together to create Slack Nut Egg Lump at Franconia Sculpture Park in the summer of 2013. The sculpture seems to fall neatlyat the confluence of the two artists’ respective bodies of work. Remarkably, the work itself is a room sized camera obscura, built upon a steel armature and partially covered with earthen cob. Nearly eighteen feet tall, the sculpture seems to erupt from the ground, a tangled mass of steel emerging, or returning, from its earthen base. The work inspires a feeling of conflict between nature and machine within the viewer, and suggests the natural decay of man-made objects, both predominant themes in the work of Hasty and MacDonald.
How long have you been collaborating? When you work together, what is your creative process like? What path does your work take between the inkling of an idea and finished project?
Robyn: We’ve known each other for about 3 years, and live in the same artist community, so there’s been lots of opportunity to work together on various levels. Before Franconia, the biggest project we worked on together was a earth house in Ghana that J designed. Our creative process involves a lot of mud wrestling, some meandering existential conversations, a subconscious draw to rusty industrial artifacts, and a love of obnoxiously heavy, stinky, or uncomfortable materials. Our process rides a roller coaster from altruistic, to ridiculous, and settles somewhere in the neighborhood of weird.
J: In this case Robyn came to me with an idea in broad strokes – a camera obscura in a dark earth room – probably because she knows how much I like digging. But there are an infinity of forms that a concept like that can ultimately take, and so distilling it down involved a lot of back and forth and scribbling over each others scribbles. I don’t think either of us like to work from an rigid drawing or design, preferring to allow the process to guide the final form. The piece ends up more alive that way. It means a lot of decisions were made on the fly, with one of us holding up a big piece of steel at a certain angle and the other one standing back saying, ‘no, a little bit that way’. Working on a scale this big, it was great to have two pairs of eyes because you can’t weld a piece into place and see it in its context with the rest of the structure at the same time.
What inspired your project at Franconia this summer? How does it relate to your past works?
Robyn: I was thinking about minimal materials and their relationship– sunlight and earth, and how the simplicity of those forces could be harnessed. A camera obscura can be made easily with just a hole in the wall of a dark room. It requires no special equipment, even the lens is unnecessary. For me, I was interested in the study of a simple machine, the intersection of earth and sunlight to create something a bit mysterious and magical. That was the point where J and I started brainstorming together, and what came out of that was an influence of industrial forms and their decay. We started looking at coal tipples, the machines used to get coal out of the earth, and the discussion became more about the way industry attempts to master nature, but in the end the human will kind of fails, and nature takes over again. That’s how we got to this form of a decaying steel tower being taken over by an earth mound that is inspired by the massive west-african termite mounds.
J: I started doing large scale earthworks in West Africa – first in Ghana on the house with Robyn and later in Mali where I built a structure that had less emphasis on being an actual functional living space and more emphasis on the experience of the space, an experimental structural and ventilation system, and its sculptural qualities. Because our architectures are meant to be comfortable (‘normal’) living spaces, most of us don’t get the opportunity to feel the powerful psychological effects of different types of spatial environment. So whereas in Ghana or Mali being in a space enclosed by these soft hand textured walls was within a certain cultural context, in the US this experience becomes very strange. I became really interested in idea of these weird earth forms interacting with our modern context which manifests in this dialogue between the natural and built, traditional and contemporary.
Why did you propose your project to Franconia and what did the experience of working here offer you?
Robyn: We proposed this project to Franconia because it offers a unique experience to build large scale in a place dedicated to that. There are big tools and machines, a community of people with experience to support large-scale work, and an audience of people who are excited to see it. Working with this kind of support, in an environment where you can roll out of bed, walk across the lawn and be in your studio, offers a very productive environment to focus, and this is invaluable.
J: Franconia offered the space and resources to work at a large scale – and the freedom to let our imaginations run wild. Building sculptures that are big enough to be explored, entered, climbed on, and experienced in this really interactive spatial way is hard to do in spatially constrained New York. It was amazing to wake up and sit out on the balcony with a cup of coffee and be able to see our piece in the making and all of the other finished sculptures out there in the park.
What other residencies have you done, and how do those experiences compare to your time at Franconia?
Robyn: I’ve had residencies at McColl Center for Visual Art, The Bronx Museum for the Arts, Taliesin/The Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. They have all been very different, and all offered different experiences and ways to grow. Of these, Franconia was the only residency where a specific proposal was made ahead of time. At the other residencies, there was a sense of looseness and exploration, where you could spend time wandering around, thinking, making sketches that respond to a specific site or environment. At Franconia, our project was all planned before actually being there, so our residency was very focused and production driven. On the one hand this leaves very little time to be a starry eyed dreamer looking at blades of grass for inspiration, on the other there is a feeling of finality and satisfaction in completing a big project.
J: Franconia offered an incredible amount of freedom throughout the whole process. From being able to work on the piece at any time, day or night, to being able to make changes on the fly and not feeling locked into anything. There’s a definite ‘anything is possible’ air to the place. There was also a sense of community at Franconia that I haven’t found other places – the communal dinners and general living situation helped ground me in the place even just being there for a short time.
Where did you study and whom did you study with?. How have those experiences influenced your own work? Who (or what) are your greatest inspirations as an artist?
Robyn: I studied officially at Parsons School of Design in the Integrated Design Curriculum. But, after graduating design school, I realized that I wanted to do something that cultivated my own voice and vision. A couple days after graduating, I found myself on the crew of a 100ft long junk raft built by a collective of 30 people to float down the Mississippi river from Minneapolis to New Orleans. I learned a lot on this trip that has transformed the way I work and my interests as an artist. This includes the importance of working collaboratively—which is not easy for most artists—and the importance of working under a clear framework that helps define what and why things are made.
J: I studied architecture as an undergraduate, and my interest in the field is as strong as ever and I think apparent in my work. Besides that, most of my learning has been hands on with other artists, builders and craftspeople. I learned metalwork by working at a metal shop for many years, doing a lot of weird architectural elements and art fabrication; learned earthwork from people in Ghana who have been building houses that way for generations. The actual construction of the work is an important aspect for me, and I hope the intimate and tactile relationship that I have with the material shows through in my work.
I think seeing Richard Serra’s sculptures in person was a really powerful thing for me. I was always interested in creating these intense psycho-spatial experiences, but found working in a formal architectural context it wasn’t usually possible. But with sculpture, anything is possible.
What do you consider the most important work of art in the world?
Robyn: I can’t really pick favorites, or superlatives. I have seen many pieces of art that have moved me, and this seems to be the important thing. I can’t put these feelings into hierarchies.
J: The one still yet to be realized…