Desiree lives in Oakland with her husband and new baby, in a cute house with a good-sized garden in the back. Her studio is at the far end of the garden and consists of two rooms and an attic space above that she uses as storage for all the props and figurative sculptures she employs in her videos, drawings, and paintings. Desiree met us at the side gate and quietly, so as to not wake her sleeping baby, we made our way through the garden to her studio. She offered us mint tea and dried fruit and nuts, and showed us around her space. Sometimes asking questions can start off awkwardly, often because enough familiarity hasn’t been established yet, and nobody feels quite settled in each other’s company…
My conversation with Desiree began a bit wobbly, and I spent a few moments fumbling for a way to create a sense of comfort between us. And though it took a bit of time we finally, together, rounded a corner and our talk took on a natural and easy tone. We chatted a lot about the complexities of human bonds and intimacy, and the ways in which we grapple with and secure identity though our attachments and connections with others. Desiree’s work often uses humor, fantasy worlds, and theatricality to create a platform from which she acts out and explores the realities of these relationships and affinities. At some point in the conversation, I asked Desiree why the topic of social and familial ties was so endlessly fascinating to her. It’s a subject matter we can all relate to, and I certainly find it endlessly fascinating, as do most other people I’m sure. But I was just curious to see how she would answer the question, what kinds of words she’d put together, and maybe what kind of backstory might come through in her answer. Well, she surprised me (and herself) by cutting to the chase and sharing a very personal detail concerning her own upbringing and how it might inform her work. The power in Desiree’s act of disclosure wasn’t so much in the actual information, though it was revelatory, it was in her willingness to share a part of herself she hadn’t been prepared to until the moment it happened. For me, that unexpected moment brought a bit of magic into the room— it closed a gap, created a rapport, and it made me pause and think about how important the state of being connected is, how much we all long for it, and how in a way it’s all we are after, and yet how surprised we always are when we actually find it.
When people ask you what you “do”, how do you answer?
I am a professional artist. I also teach part-time as adjunct faculty at California College of the Arts. I like being adjunct because that way it doesn’t ever feel like a job, and I can go in and teach with a really open heart and fully engage with students and their ideas.
Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
My primary day job is my studio practice, which is a large part of my identity and worldview. I see being an artist as my purpose, but I recognize that shifts and expansion are occurring in terms of my identity mostly due to the fact that I am now a mother, too. But being an artist is a “lifestyle job”— it permeates everything, and I’m constantly engaged in work that asks questions about humanity. When I confront these questions in my work, I also have to confront them personally.
What mediums do you work with? How would you describe your subject matter? What themes seem to occur/reoccur in your work?
For several years, I’ve been focused on making multi-channel video installations and drawings. Fantasy is both my method and my subject matter— it’s a liminal space where the confines of everyday life don’t exist and normal conventions aren’t as influential. I create as well as depict role-playing narratives that typically use figurative stand-ins like dolls, figurines, digital avatars and so forth. The theme of attachment both in group and interpersonal forms, and whether it’s from a biological or post-biological perspective, is a very strong thread in the work.
What are you currently reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
I’m currently reading theory about the clinical practice of psychodrama. It’s a method of psychotherapy that moves away from talk and instead utilizes action (dramatization, role-playing, etc.) to gain insight. Psychodrama interests me not because I want to employ it necessarily, but I see myself as a Dungeon Master in a game of Dungeons & Dragons. I’m the storyteller, inviting all these performers to play out a narrative structure I’ve provided, along with props, but they take on their own roles how they see fit.
What are your biggest challenges to creating art and how do you deal with them? How do you navigate the art world?
I’ve recently become a mom and I can no longer work whenever I please. It’s teaching me to be sharply focused in the limited 20-25 hours a week I do have in the studio right now.
As for navigating the art world, I try to stay primarily focused on experiencing the work of artists. The love of art is the driving force and it’s important to keep it central.
What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
In addition to being a locale for production, a showroom for the work and a testing ground for presentation, the studio becomes a living, breathing, sketch book. It’s a place to think with and through the images and objects I create. Right now, as I am in the beginning phase of a project, my studio is somewhat of a clean slate. Older work and its’ remnants are tucked away in storage.
I’m aim to have a flexible space. My needs change according to the project and phase of production. Mold making, drawing, sewing and digital processing are some of the processes I use that necessitate shifts in the environment. Most of the furniture is on castors or can be broken down to maximize the flexibility of the space and suit my given production phase.
Has there been a shift or change in your life or work that has led to what you’re making now? Do you see your work as autobiographical at all?
I am in new territory at this time. Much of my psychic energy is invested in my family. Formerly, at any given moment I would be thinking about my work. This isn’t the case now while I’m nursing my infant. There is less space and time for reflection. When I have my free time to work in the studio, it’s simply time to do. I feel compelled to make without a deep rational process sandwiching my impulses. This advent is welcomed.
Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
I’m currently working with Brian Caraway at Magnolia Editions in Oakland to publish a small edition of my work. The publication will be a short run multiple of a series of backlit watermark, new media images— an original technique recently invented by Donald Farnsworth. Simply stated, this process turns imagery from several of my drawings into watermarks on paper. The images can only be seen if light shines through the paper. They are going to be gorgeous. I will probably have to mount each of them on a light box, which will create an even lighting so the images can fully come through.
I’m simultaneously beginning another new project and I don’t clearly understand what I am going to do which is highly unusual for me. I do know that I am really interested in mythologies about extra terrestrials and I’m enjoying dressing up in E.T. costumes.
What are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of my son and husband.
What do you want your work to do?
I want my work to enter at a gut level and then travel up your body to your mind.
What advice has influenced you?
“You can live your life by circumstances or by vision.” This is a quote I read somewhere but it’s great advice,non?
How will you know when you have arrived?
In terms of the qualitative aspects of being an artist, I always hope to reach new ground. I hope the practice is one that teaches me about myself, the world, my relationships, and spirituality in an ongoing journey. I specifically don’t want to arrive per se. Moving and evolving is closer to my ambition.
Now I’ll approach this question from a practical perspective. My work has been sustaining itself financially for several years. That was a mark of arrival for me. Now I’m setting the bar higher and am looking for the work to create sustainable income that helps support my family and our future.
Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
My work will be featured in a number of upcoming group exhibitions. Currently I have two drawings in the SFMOMA’s “Fifty Years of Bay Area Art: The SECA Awards” through April 3. In March 2012, my work will also be in group show called “Big Reality” curated by Brian Droitcour at 319 Scholes Gallery in Brooklyn. I have a video that will be shown in NYC at the Big Screen Plaza in May 2012 as a NADA special presentation curated by Stephanie Dodes. Lastly, in 2012, a video show “Super 8” will be traveling to Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco; Kunstlerhaus, Berlin and the Museum of Modern Art, Rio de Janeiro.
To see more of Desiree’s work:
Desiree Holman at In The Make