Little Ghosts of Alchemy and Magic: A Conversation with Emily Nachison
January 21, 2015 by Sarah Margolis-Pineo
Read interview online: www.badatsports.com
As a kid, I felt betrayed by the cheery optimism peddled by Disney. My sisters and I were raised on the stories of Hans Christian Anderson, gleaning magic from the gloom and gore of The Little Match Girl, The Red Shoes, and The Little Mermaid. When Ariel wasn’t turned into sea foam at the end of the 1989 animation, I thought, (in 8-year old terms): What the fuck was that?! I found the idea of pitting one’s desire against excruciating pain thrilling and, indeed, necessary for any sort of moral to resonate. After visualizing little red shoes dancing away on severed legs, anything G-rated will inevitably disappoint.
I never asked during the course of our interview, but I’m guessing that Portland-based artist Emily Nachison had a similar childhood experience. In a recent artist talk, she cited a German folktale, The Seven Ravens, a story about a girl who frees her seven brothers from imprisonment in a glass mountain by cutting off one of her fingers to use the bone as a key. Nachison was drawn to this particular tale, firstly, for its depiction of glass, (her media of choice), as a simultaneously ethereal and earthly substance that combines the allure of a crystalline surface with the weight of a tomb. Secondly, she was inspired by the relationship between body and natural world. Like the girl’s finger, much of Nachison’s work hints at the possibility of portals—keys—leading to realms a bit more magical than the world we currently understand to exist.
Though curious about fairy rings and New Age pseudo-spirituality, Nachison is equally versed in Victorian approaches to nature in decorative arts. Her installations are clean yet luminous, featuring pieces created from kiln-formed glass combined with few elemental materials such as leather, horsehair, and stainless steel. Her work can suggest a tangled wildness—a ghostly apparition of nature rendered in delicate glass. Equally, it can bring to mind an alchemical process developed in a laboratory and exhibited in a museum of natural history. Or, Nachison can draw from craft-based traditions of weaving and metallurgy, creating objects that are best understood when worn on the body or held in hand.
Regardless of scale, Nachison’s process is ultimately the subject at hand. Glass making is at once highly scientific and a bit mysterious. To create her forms, the artist casts specimens collected in nature—mushrooms, crystals, and branches—manipulating the molds by hand to construct an uncanny landscape, increment by increment. Then, she meticulously measures her silica mixture, pouring it into the molds to be fired. The alchemy behind glass production—transforming sand into something of profound value—illustrates humanity’s capacity to master materiality, creating things that are functional and beautiful from raw earth. In the midst of all her scientific calculations, Nachison still manages to question our understanding of the world and how we quantify its forces. Alluding to the history of scientific advancement, her work embraces the unknown, suggesting there are always multiple truths—it’s up to us to remove the finger and surrender to the magic.
I spoke to Emily Nachison last summer in her studio.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo: Has the natural world always played a significant role in your life, and subsequently, in your work? How has your relationship with the natural world changed since relocating from Southern California to the Pacific Northwest, (by way of Baltimore, San Francisco and Detroit)?
Emily Nachison: It’s always been a part of my life, but since moving to Oregon, spending time outdoors has become central to my practice. As a child, I liked to sit and count things in the backyard, and then in undergrad and graduate school, I became interested in folklore and Victorian traditions of categorizing and cultivating nature. I like to consider the ways we organize and think about nature. What does it mean to create a garden? What does it mean to impose order on the natural world? My work started as being about nature and our relationship with the outdoors, but slowly, it’s become more about the ways we quantify it—trying to understand and create meaning from every encounter. Since moving to Oregon, my inquiry became more about my own experiences–about foraging and gathering.
I grew up in Southern California in a pretty New Age environment, and that colored my perspective for a very long time. I’m very interested in science and how we understand the world, but I’m also very interested in the desire to find some sort of magic in nature—even if it doesn’t exist. For me, making work is a way of having another headspace to go into. I go outdoors to seek inspiration, and in the studio, I use that experience to wander in alternative space. This is where nature and magic come together, and that combination of forces is revealed in my work.
SMP: Besides the outdoors, where else do you go for inspiration?
EN: I cite folktales, certainly. The mushroom cycles, Portal (2012) for example, references these portals to other realms called Fairy Rings that are found in folktales. The mushroom cycles in my work are based on an actual type of mushroom called an ink cap. As they die, they release spores and melt into a puddle of ink. Reading about the ink cap mushroom began my interest in transition cycles, and I started exploring the transmutation of mass. From there, I began thinking about concepts around alchemy—transforming one material into another, as well as physics and the conservation of mass.
EN: Doing any sort of research about alchemy on the Internet usually makes me feel like I’m reading Harry Potter fan fiction. It was seeking out a more credible source that led me to the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University. The Beinecke houses a collection of alchemical manuscripts from the 14th to the 17th century. The Beinecke alchemical manuscript collection was founded by Mary Conover Mellon, a follower of Carl Jung who introduced his theories to the U.S. She went around buying manuscripts that he had used for his research into symbols and archetypes that led to his theories of the collective unconscious. I received a research grant to travel there, and I met with curator Kathryn James, who shared incredible works with me including the Voynich manuscript, which has its own cult following. The Voynich is from the 14th century and has all these incredible drawings of plants on vellum. At the time, these plants hadn’t been cataloged or studied to the extent that we know them today, and I found it fascinating that people were drawn to render them in such detail. Plants have a certain magic, and that was made clear looking through the manuscript.
SMP: So much of the evolution of human knowledge really demonstrates how little we do know about the world. Opening up the potential for magic is not only exciting, but it seems a necessary counterpoint to scientific understanding.
EN: People keep coming back to it! We accept that it doesn’t exist, yet it’s a constant theme within every cultural zeitgeist.
SMP: Can we talk about your use of glass? What drew you to it as a material coming from fiber and soft sculpture?
EN: In grad school, I had my world blown apart by a visiting critic who told me that all of my exploration into Carl Jung, the collective unconscious, etc., was all very New Age. I had no idea! At the time I was totally distraught, but it forced me to turn a corner. I began reading about the Victorian Age and the idea of lamenting the loss of nature. The Victorians created fake ruins with fabricated signs of age to solicit a sense nostalgia thus turning the natural world into something decorative. Glass became very popular during that time. It became more affordable. Paxton’s Crystal Palace was opened. Due to my interest in this time period, I became interested in using glass as a material. I wasn’t able to begin working with glass until I came to Oregon, where I first had access to resources and expertise in kiln-formed glass thanks to Bullseye Projects, an affiliate of Bullseye Glass Company.
EN: In my work I’m interested in transformation and how culture shapes our relationship with nature. Glass goes through an amazing chemical transformation when it is created and also has a physical preciousness and a culturally derived value. I’m interested in playing with these aspects of the material. Additionally, glass, for me, has a memorial tone. By casting natural objects, stones, plants, shells, etc., into glass, I transform them into relics. I give material form to something ethereal. Each piece is like a ghost.
SMP: The way you piece elements together to create a whole strikes me as possibly having roots in fiber.
EN: The unification of individual units was definitely part of my fiber education. My first forays into installation as a student consisted of elements, made in the studio, that were then joined in the gallery space. My work in in grad school and directly after moved away from this practice as I developed monumental scaled works where the elements were indistinguishable from the whole. Working in glass, however, brought this way of working back since scale is limited by the size of the kiln. One could argue that this practice is as rooted in glass—stained glass, mosaic, murrine, as much as it has roots in fiber.
SMP: You mentioned that the way you create these forms is very intuitive and, looking at them, I can certainly see more formal sculptural representation infused with the mystical—a combination of material and immaterial. Is it possible to describe how the forms come to be?
EN: The process of casting glass is not an intuitive process—it’s very much about applying correct calculations to produce a specific outcome. One of my favorite steps in glass casting is doing the weight calculations where you fill the cavity of your mold with water, measure the correct amount of water, and then you do a little equation to figure out how much glass that equals before measuring and pouring the glass into the mold to be fired. I like how working with glass forces me to slow down, think, and count. Before I was making very intuitive, somewhat aggressive work. This is a whole different pace.
EN: It’s through the process of creating and casting the wax forms that the intuitive part comes back in. What I do first is create a silicone mold of a natural object and then cast it in wax, I then spend time combining it with other cast wax forms, letting the individual pieces fall away through heating and reforming it. It’s easy to get lost in that.
SMP: There is so much mystery surrounding glass production still. Even in the Pacific Northwest, home of the studio glass movement, where glass production is perhaps more accessible than most places, there is a high-level of skill and access to resources that keeps the craft very shrouded and exclusive.
EN: Because of that, you don’t see glass appear in sculpture that often. When it does appear, it feels really rarified and special. I’ve always wanted to create work that feels like a relic—something captured in time, and glass works well for me in that respect.
SMP: I’d like to discuss the scale of your work. Some pieces have a very Craft-ness to them in that you can imagine the weight of them in hand or the feel of them being worn, whereas others definitely draw from the experience of a Fine Art sculptural installation. Is presenting these two shifts in the embodied relationship with the work crucial for you?
EN: My recent solo exhibition, The Realm of Quantifiable Truths (Bullseye Gallery, Portland, OR, 2014), was the first time I have used such a dramatic scale shift, but in all of my work I want the viewer to become aware of their body as they move through the space and also how they would relate bodily to each work. Combining these two types of relationships in one exhibition heightens the viewers’ awareness.
In addition to embodied installations, which make us conscious of space, I included works that referenced the human skeleton. I created the segmented branches to reference human finger bones. I was thinking about the idea of the finger as a form of measurement—using the human hand as a proto-ruler. The necklace-like pieces definitely speak to really heavy, unwieldy jewelry, but I also intended for the pieces to look like vertebrae. All together, the exhibition resembled a dismembered body that was been put back together again.
SMP: Can you imagine your work existing in a public venue besides a gallery?
EN: I’m not interested in moving existing works into non-gallery spaces, but I am interested in responding to and making work for specific venues. I am currently working on an installation for a three hundred year old barn in northern Scotland. Working in this entirely different space and responding to the environment and folklore of the area is a fantastic challenge. The installation will open in the summer of 2016. I would love to work inside a greenhouse. In particular, the large glass and steel structures that were popular during the Victorian period. These spaces embody many of the ideas that ideas that I explore in my work. Certainly working in a space like this would impact the form and conceptual direction of my work. I have been wanting to make work related to evaporation, but it makes little sense to pursue this in a gallery. A glass house, however, might be the ideal place.
Emily Nachison, born in San Diego, California, received a BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2006 and a MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art in 2010. Nachison lives and works in Portland, Oregon and is currently the Fiber Department Chair and a Visiting Assistant Professor at the Oregon College of Art and Craft.
Currently, Nachison’s work is featured in the exhibition, Dark Ecologies, on view at Bullseye Gallery through March 28.
All photography by Dan Kvitka unless credited otherwise.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo is a curator and writer based in Portland, Oregon. She is currently Associate Curator of Museum of Contemporary Craft.
Bad at Sports
Founded in 2005 by Duncan MacKenzie, Richard Holland, and Amanda Browder, Bad at Sports (B@S) now features over 20 principle collaborators and is a weekly podcast, a series of objects, events, and a daily blog produced in Chicago, San Francisco, Detroit and New York City that features artists and art worlders talking about art and the community that makes, reviews and participates in it.