Beth Dary‘s sculptures, installations and drawings have in common deep layers of meaning, imaginative combinations of materials, and subtle delicacy in form and color. Her insatiable curiosity in exploring diverse materials and processes results in a wide array of formal expressions, ranging from ceramics to photography; fabric to glass. She shares with Art Spiel some insight into her work throughout the years, her process explorations, and her upcoming projects.
AS: You grew up by the sea and the notion of water and other patterns from nature seem to play a central role through all your work. Can you tell me more about it?
Beth Dary: Nature has always been an inspiration and is an integral aspect of my work. I was born and raised on Cape Cod, Massachusetts and remember being acutely aware of the power and beauty of the ocean and the coastal environment, even as a child.
I spent many hours walking the shoreline beach-combing with my mom. On her daily morning walk she would clean the beach, picking up the trash that washed ashore while I picked up as many interesting objects as I could carry home – beach glass, seedpods, fishing lures, shells, driftwood. Much to the chagrin of my family, I still cart home all kinds of found objects that I find interesting on walks or hikes. They often include some form of growth or decay, which are always inspiring, except when they smell up the car, home, or studio.
Another visceral memory is of the Nor’easters and hurricanes we weathered and the almost ritual routine we had preparing for and riding out these storms. We would board up the house, light the kerosene lamps and get out our books. I rarely got much reading done as I would inevitably crash into a deep sleep before the storm hit, as I seem to be a human barometer – my energy drops when the mercury falls. When the storms passed we would walk the neighborhood to survey the damage. This has left a lasting impression on me and has also played a large role in how I view the natural world.
Moving forward to my adult life, I have always lived near the water’s edge – whether on Cape Cod, New York City, on the Mississippi River in Memphis, and New Orleans. As a result, I have continued to bear witness to the awesome forces of nature and climate, including having experienced Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy first hand.
AS: Please tell me about your project “Elements of Ambivalence” from 2006.
Beth Dary: I was living in New Orleans in 2005, where my family and I had settled after two years of travelling to places like Los Angeles, Prague, and Calgary, Alberta, having left New York in the aftermath of 9/11. Less than two months after moving into the house we purchased in NOLA, we were on the move again, hitting the road with our then four year-old, less than 24 hours before Katrina made landfall. We resettled in New York City once it became clear that we would not be able to return home for some time. That fall I was a recipient of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Gulf Coast Residency, which was created in response to the many artists who were displaced by the storm. Being able to go back to work with a community of 12 other artists who had also landed in New York after leaving the Gulf Coast was the first major step in recovering personally and professionally.
The “studios”, located in an empty floor of a Lower Manhattan office building, were separated by fabric walls as they were put together quickly to create an instant work space for the artists. It was during this residency that I began the “Elements of Ambivalence” series. I decided to use one of the 10’x 17’fabric walls as a canvas to create a large-scale, double-sided drawing as I didn’t have any materials to work with at the time and this seemed like a good place to start. The drawing was initially inspired by the circle maps I was seeing in the newspapers to describe the diaspora of the New Orleans population and communities displaced by the hurricane, as well as the mold patterns that formed in people’s water-damaged homes, including ours.
For what became “Elements of Ambivalence”, I chose to use florist pins to create the drawing. On one side of the canvas were thousands of reflective black and white round-headed ball pins; the opposite side revealed only the sharp sheath part of the pin. This duality relates to the simultaneous beauty and danger of the natural world. Also included in this body of work were kinetic sculptures made using steel hoops covered with discarded sections of the wall fabric embedded with pins to make individual pieces that hung in the space at eye level.
AS: You do public art as well. Can you tell me about your project “Emerge”?
Beth Dary: In 2006/7 I returned to New Orleans with my family after spending a year in New York. It was during this time that I created my first public art project in conjunction with Aorta, a guerilla style artist group dedicated to placing artwork into areas that were heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
“Emerge” was located in New Orleans City Park. The installation consisted of placing hundreds of cast paper pulp “pods” into the landscape of a low-lying wetland on the grounds in the Park. For a casual passerby, the distinction between “artistic” and “natural” phenomenon would blur. The sculptural elements of the piece which were inspired by objects found in nature like a gourd or seed pod were created using all organic materials and placed in a way that could be imagined as an integral part of the life cycle of the plants in that area. In this way I used ‘art’ to seed something of potential growth for a landscape that was flooded and badly damaged during the storm. Perhaps these sculptures were even collected as a curiosity by a visitor to the park – maybe a child around the same age I was when trailing behind my mother on the beach.
The sculptures, many of them unfinished fragments, were part of an earlier body of work that was interrupted by the hurricane, sitting untouched on my studio work table for over a year. The use of elements of a partially completed work connoted a disruption of a work in progress, much the way so many lives were caught in a moment at the time of the storm and dropped elsewhere out of their intended context.
AS: Let’s take your glass work. What is the genesis?
Beth Dary: My fascination with bubbles started, believe it or not, while giving our son bubble baths when he was a toddler. It continued to grow and evolve over the course of several years as the basis for a body of work exploring the idea of the individual and universal ‘bubble’ we all live in. The idea took on added meaning coming out of our experience of being literally blown out of our home by the winds and rain of Katrina.
In 2007 we returned to New York, where we have lived ever since. Coming out of my experience with “Emerge”, a friend told me about “Art on the Beach”, a 1970’s era artist movement in Battery Park City in Lower Manhattan on land that was, at that time, a vacant sandy landfill. By 2007 the area had transformed into a dense urban neighborhood where we happened to be living.
Much of my free time was spent along the Battery Park waterfront in the playgrounds with our young son. A favorite spot of mine is the Lily Pool, a duck pond just south of the World Financial Center. Thinking about “Art on the Beach”, and seeing bubbles floating over the pond from the nearby playground where my son was playing, I was inspired to propose “Equilibrium” as a public art installation made up of bubble sculptures that would float in the Lily Pool.
During a residency at the Johnson Atelier sculpture facility, I tried a variety of materials from cast rubber in molds built by the master mold makers at the Atelier as well as concrete. Eventually, I decided to try glass and was excited by the results of a test piece when I saw the reflective properties and how it related to an outdoor environment in the changing light during the course of a day.
The project began with an initial grant from the Manhattan Community Arts Fund in conjunction with the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and gained momentum when I received a commission from the Battery Park City Authority. Based on this, I developed renderings showing how the glass sculptures would be placed and “live” in the pond.
It seems like the project took on a life of its own, growing as it went along. I also received funding through the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and was accepted at Urban Glass in Brooklyn, through their visiting artist fellowship, Urban Invites. There I created the components of the installation, 32 floating blown glass sculptural bubble clusters, with a team of amazing and talented glass artists.
At the Lily Pool, the sculptures were immersed in the water, floating amidst the plant & animal life inhabiting the pond during the summer and fall of 2008. Engineering the installation in a body of water presented unusual technical demands, including a commitment to use materials that would be eco-friendly for the plant and animal life in the pond. We settled on a system of steel cables anchored in flower pots filled with concrete to secure the sculptures into an individual orbit without colliding with one another as the wind and current shifted constantly. The de-installation also had its own challenges as an early freeze that year meant we had to break through ice in the Lily Pond to remove the sculptures and their anchoring hardware. Fortunately, none of them broke.
My hope for “Equilibrium” was to add a bit of curiosity and playfulness to the viewer’s day as the sculptures reflected the natural surroundings including the passersby themselves, as well as alluding to the metaphorical bubble that inspired the installation. The ‘bubble’ has taken on many simultaneous meanings for me as I have worked with the form over the years -including air bubbles of CO2 trapped in Arctic ice that track climate change, as well as biomorphic forms that relate to metastasizing cells.
As it happened, the installation took place in the fall of 2008, during the height of the subprime mortgage collapse and the fall of Lehman Brothers. So through the same kind of synergy that led from one grant to another supporting the creation of the work, at that moment by their location near the heart of the Financial District, the installation took on the added context and meaning of the financial ‘bubble’ which was much on people’s minds that fall.
The idea has come a long way from those early bubble baths with our son, and I am returning to the use of glass bubble clusters this year after working with other forms and media for much of the last 10 years.
AS: And your collaborative project with Christy Speakman for “Art in Odd Places”?
Beth Dary:Christy Speakman and I met during the LMCC Residency, where we were in adjacent spaces. We both work with the natural world in mind and often spoke together through the thin fabric walls of the makeshift studios about our concerns regarding the environment and how it influenced / impacted our work, practice and lives.
In 2009 we proposed a collaborative multi-channel video installation, “Full Service Island”, which was accepted for the annual public art festival, “Art in Odd Places”. Our collaboration was to create two large-scale video installations at the Chelsea Carwash & service station using the existing glass windows for projection.
The service station, one of the last in lower Manhattan, was located at the corner of 14th street and the West Side Highway, below the newly renovated Highline Park. The videos captured details of daily acts at the station focusing on imagery of urban runoff – soapsuds, petroleum products and other pollutants as they interact with ground water and spread into the environment. The manager of the station was quietly aware of the meaning of the piece and a good sport about letting us use the facility as studio and stage to exhibit the video, perhaps because the station was scheduled to close shortly after the installation. The location is now a vacant mall.
AS: You are working with diverse materials and processes: paper, glass, drawing, sculpture, video, and ceramics. Tell me a bit about your relationship to materials and media.
Beth Dary: I tend to work in a project-based manner and strive to use materials that convey the ideas I am working on. I first consider the concept I have for any body of work and then try to think of the right materials. Often this includes experimentation, similar to the process that led me from cast rubber, to plaster and ultimately to blown glass in “Equilibrium”. My 2010 installation “Emersion” began with a fascination with barnacles that grow in abundance on Cape Cod. I felt this kind of sea life worked as a metaphor for the resilient and adaptable qualities of the human condition in a time of global warming and rising tides.
I had begun making barnacle sculptures with oil clay and sticking them directly onto the walls, ceiling and floor of my studio around the time I met with curator Dan Cameron in relation to “Prospect 1.5”, which he was then planning for late fall 2010/11 in New Orleans. Of the various works in progress in the studio, he responded to the barnacle sculptures and asked if I could open a show with this work in November. Of course, I said ‘Yes!’ before having a plan on how or what exactly I would do with the idea, either in terms of the final medium for the piece, or turning it into a full-scale gallery installation.
After a few weeks of patiently waiting (or trying to wait patiently), I learned that I had been officially chosen for “Prospect 1.5” just as I was heading to Yaddo for a month-long summer residency. I spent my time at the residency developing ideas for how to realize the installation. Some key reading material that I brought with me included Darwin and the Barnacle, which deepened my understanding of how these crustaceans have adapted to changing environments, and On The Water/Palisade Bay, a book that grew out of “Rising Currents”(a show featuring the work of a friend, Marc Tsurumaki and his firm LTL Architects, at the Museum of Modern Art), which proposed architectural projects along the coastal edge of New York City, exploring strategies to adapt to sea level rise. Using the walls of the studio at Yaddo, which was large enough to approximate the gallery space (unlike my cramped quarters in New York City), I developed the idea of creating wall sculptures hanging in an array that would mirror the topography of marine environments where barnacles thrive.
I also spent a great deal of time at the residency experimenting with different techniques and materials. While the oil clay was great to try out as a “sketch” for the sculptural forms, I knew I wanted to work with a different material for the finished piece. My first thought was to revisit the familiar approach of using cast paper pulp, along the lines of the ‘pods’ I had been making that turned into “Emerge”. But after trying this out, I was not excited or satisfied with the result as I sensed it somehow did not convey the tenacity of the barnacles that I was looking for. At that point, I found myself drawn to the completely unfamiliar medium of porcelain, as I felt it has a kind of translucent fragility at the same time as an inherent strength that was more appropriate for capturing the concept of the piece.
So after returning home I had two months to fabricate work for a large installation with a medium that I had never used. Enlisting the help of an experienced ceramic artist, and a group of my friends, I had small ‘barnacle parties’ in my studio where we created thousands of hand-built barnacle clusters designed to hang in formation on the wall of the project room of the Heriard-Cimino Gallery. I was terrified the first time we put the work into the kiln to be fired, but in the end it all came together. “Emersion” eventually became an immersive installation that filled the gallery, merging and overlapping the contours of New York Harbor and the Mississippi River, exploring the idea that we are connected through global waterways.
AS: Tell me about your drawing process and how it relates to your other work.
Beth Dary: It’s hard to say what comes first, the drawings or the sculptures because I tend to work on both simultaneously as they inform one another in different but equal ways.
An example might be “Littoral Drift”, a multi-layered drawing series on handmade paper with egg tempera and beeswax that echo the concepts I first explored in “Emersion”, where topographical maps served as a source for ideas and imagery for site-specific installations. By layering the translucent drawings of rivers, coastlines and overlapping biomorphic forms, I am able to achieve a sense of depth. Since that time, I have created multiple site-responsive installations using the local waterways as a departure point in locations such as Port Chester, New York, London, and the Ural Mountain region of Russia.
I often consider my three-dimensional works, such as the pin sculptures in “Elements of Ambivalence” as “drawings” in space. I have also built woven wire models throughout the years as preliminary “drawings” in order to get a sense of the shape and scale for larger works, as well as using it in combination with materials like paper pulp & plant fibers. I also consider a new series I am developing now with wire and blown glass as a hybrid of drawing and sculpture.
AS: In a recent studio visit I saw an intriguing and ambitious work in process. Can you share a bit about this new body of work?
Beth Dary: I am currently working on several projects at the same time (which seems to be my modus operandi). But the one that is taking over my mind and studio is a multimedia sculpture & video piece that I have been contemplating and collecting images over many years, using original and appropriated film footage that combines images of both man-made and natural phenomena projected on to glass sculptures, walls, and floor. All work coming out of the studio relates to the impermanence of our surroundings and the “new nature” we create daily.
AS: Can you tell me briefly about your upcoming projects?
Beth Dary: 2019 starts off with a show curated by Patricia Miranda, “Material Lamentations: Art, Grief, and the Land”, at the Cambridge Art Association’s Kathryn Schultz Gallery in Cambridge Massachusetts, January 8th through February 2nd. It includes an installation of drawings entitled “Bloom” and porcelain barnacles from “Emersion”. Both bodies of work were made by steeping the handmade paper and porcelain in a slurry of tea and rusted steel shot in order to create a patina that alludes to “toxic” environments such as the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn where my studio was located for several years.
I am co-curating “Among Friends – Entre Amigos” with fellow artists, Alexandra Rutsch Brock and Patricia Fabricant at the Clemente in the Lower East Side. This exhibition celebrates the strength we find through community and will consist of over 200 pieces of 9” x 7″ handmade paper with zippers attached on either side. Each panel is the work of a different artist that will be combined by zipping the individual components together into one continuous piece. The show opens in May and will be the second time we’ve used this concept, which was inspired by Robert Rauschenberg’s “Hiccups”, originally shown at the 2018 DUMBO Open Studios.
I will also be participating in the 2019 DUMBO Open Studios in Brooklyn, NY where I am currently participating in the Two Trees Cultural Subsidy Space Residency – date TBD. And, last but not least, & perhaps the biggest upcoming project is getting our son through the college admissions process.