Walk through the halls of CCV Montpelier and you’ll notice words such as Maybe! and IF staring you in the face. The words, along with a number of additional pieces, are part of the center’s latest art show, which features the work of Montpelier-based artist Sayward Schoonmaker. Recently, CCV’s Jeremy Vaughn sat down with Sayward to talk about the show and her inspiration for the work. An opening for the show is scheduled for 5 p.m. on October 3.
Now: Thank you for taking the time today to talk to me about your exhibition here at the Community College of Vermont in Montpelier. There are a lot of questions I want to ask you about the work and about how you have displayed it. You’ve hung silkscreened sashes and works on paper using a variety of media, and you have an installation on display as well. These are all very different, but there seems to be a larger idea in play. Can you delve into the ideas you had while preparing for this exhibition? Was there a theme or concept that makes all this work meld?
Sayward: Thank you! I’m pleased to show work at CCV. There are a lot of ideas kicking around in this show. I bike a lot. Consider we’re all big sensory maps and that loads of information passes through us all the time. Some things halt you, other things don’t. The information that halts usually feeds into ongoing threads of interest. The ones I can’t seem to shake: language, history, love (especially in its most saccharine forms such as heartbreak), and architecture. When I bike, I churn all this stuff and synthesis begins, connections are made between the core interests and the absorbed information. In this past year I’ve been moved by the Seneca Falls Women’s Convention of 1848, Frederick Douglass’s Independence Day Speech of 1852, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and trends in the media regarding women.
I see a connection in all of these in the idea as language as embodiment, a frame for experience. For example, is there power in a group of people pretending that humanity has evolved into a species that embraces difference, exploration, and peace? The work is meant to explore alternatives through language, breaking it down and building it again. I use paper and cardboard a lot for its ephemeral characteristics. Almost as if they’re abstracted pamphlets distributed by a modern-day pamphleteer.
Now: The text in work seems to come out of the literary tradition, especially poetry. Can you talk about what you read to gain inspiration?
Sayward: Sure! I love poetry! Unfortunately, I didn’t start reading it until I was an adult, so I’m making up for lost time. I often find myself reading really great poetry and exclaiming to the book, “How did I not know you for so long!?” I look at and read a lot of concrete poetry—particularly from the 1950’s and 60’s—artists and writers using language as image to undermine and transform meaning. When a bunch of s’s are printed again and again, are they still letters? Yes and no. They’re also lines and sounds.
I love Maggie Nelson and Anne Carson. Recently, I’ve been reading Frederick Douglass’s writings; exquisite and wrenching. I read AM Homes’s This Book Will Save Your Life once a year. Any books about space and place, Juhani Pallasmaa’s writings on architecture.
I’m particularly attracted to fragmentary writing. When I first began writing, chunks or pieces were my default. It just made sense to me. I’ve never been very attached to what something is about. Poetry presents pictures and feelings, and yes, can be about something, but the poetry I like the best usually doesn’t make that the goal. Really good fragmentary writing invites the reader to read as if she is looking, allowing things to exist next to each other without needing to thread things together into a narrative.
Now: How long have you been using text in your work?
Sayward: I started using text in my work in 2009 and by the following year began writing both for physical works and for publication. I came to realize that I treat language as I would any other medium. I come from a conceptually driven arts education. For the past several years, language is the best material for the concepts I’m working on.
Now: How does your use of text in these various works change or mutate depending on the medium? I am looking at “Sorry Hole” and this greatly differs in the use of text from “Big If”.
Sayward: I regard text as material—yes, it makes meaning, but it also contains a material body, a sound, a look, and changes and shifts in these characteristics complicate their ‘intended’ meaning. We experience proof of this all the time—we’ve all worried about the use of an exclamation point or felt the smarting of poorly used caps letters— if language was purely semantic, this wouldn’t happen.
In “Sorry Hole” I wanted to mutate the valence of what a sorry is. Does a pile of sorries make a hole or a patch or a mark or a stain. Are a lot of sorries better than one? Is the Sorry Hole only that because its name is “Sorry Hole”?
Now: Speaking of the “Big If” on the second floor, I call it an installation rather than a sculpture because it is playing off the floor, ceiling and the picture rail. This oversize IF is compelling. It elicits a feeling that the infinite ifs being possibilities are unbearable or flopping over in themselves. “IF” needs additional support. Can you tell me about this piece and what you intent was?
Sayward: For me, “Big If” strikes the sacred balance of funny/sad. When I was first asked to have a show at CCV, I wanted to make work that called attention to the picture rail. I’ve been fascinated by molding and trim for a long time—it’s both a protector that joint and a cover for where things meet. Any building presents a series of promises and ways of being to its inhabitants. Picture rails always scream to me “Don’t mess anything up!!” A building is a bold statement! I wanted to juxtapose this moxie with rumblings of the enormity of uncertainty in everything—they hold hands with each other all the time, as much as we like to ignore this, for self-preservation.
Now: Can you tell me more about the largest drawing in the exhibition titled “Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Porch“. It reminds me of the lyrics from a Jim O’Rourke song “Women of the World Take Over.” It’s likely that is an association that I am bringing to this work, but can you talk to me about the statement and the image of the house?
Sayward: Right on! Almost. I’m referencing the song “Women of the World Take Over” by Scottish poet and musician Iver Cutler, rather than O’Rourke. (I only know of the Cutler version.) I’ve been thinking about how women say sorry all the time for nothing at all. Recently, there was a Pantene commercial about the absurdity of unfounded sorries. It would be great if it weren’t trying to sell us Pantene.
I visited Stanton’s house over the summer and made drawings of her porch. Porches are fascinating. They mark the transition from outside to inside, serve as a platform, a viewing and meeting place. Stanton sometimes found women on her porch, in need of help. I wanted to merge the idea of a mass abandoning of unnecessary sorries from not only women, but for the feminine—strip femininity of its stereotypes with a structure that carries multiple functions. What a better place to dump these sorries than on the porch of Elizabeth, at the vanguard of the Women’s Suffrage movement?
Now: This is the only drawing of its kind in the show. Can you talk to me about the process of making this work?
Sayward: Drawing is thinking. It’s rumination. I use language partly because it is a form of embodiment. To inhabit another’s language is to become a sliver of that person for a spell. Everyone should read Frederick Douglass. (He attended the Seneca Falls Convention, as well.) I acted on a gut feeling to draw, to inhabit these voices.
Now: Why no more posing with cats? Don’t you like cats?
Sayward: Cats are cats. Purrs are nice. The name of the piece is “The Women.” Consider: the cat lady, the cat woman, the recent cover of Rolling Stone magazine, the many valences of the word cat.
Now: Thank you for your time today. Do you have any more remarks or comments you would like the viewers to know about?
Sayward: I offer this: Imagine leaving the stage, sashed, sashaying with the most graceful, self-possessed wave. On to alternate modes of thought!