Chalet Comellas-Baker uses video, sound, installation, and print to interrogate memory, environment, and place. The Nashville-based artist is inspired by her Spanish, Cuban and American roots and often references Latin American diasporic histories through her personal lens of assimilation. As the co-owner of Unrequited Leisure, she brings a new dynamic of screen-based artwork with critical and topical investigations into Nashville’s growing art scene.
Can you share your background with us and what brought you to art?
My background is in studio art, arts education, and research. I have worked in a variety of art related settings during my life, as a studio artist, a gallery director, and as an Assistant Professor, in the Department of Art at Florida State University. All of these experiences definitely feed into my current art practice which I would say has pedagogical leanings.
I spent the majority of my life living and working in Tampa, more specifically, Ybor City, which is known as Tampa’s Latin Quarter and the only national landmark historic district in the region. In the early 1900s, it became home to thousands of immigrants from Cuba, Spain and Italy, who helped establish Ybor’s reputation in the cigar-making industry. A few of those immigrants were my great grandparents and all the stories you read about that time focus on the ways in which these immigrants created new communities together, away from home, developed out of a new shared experience and I think that story has influenced the way I approach my work, which tends to reflect ideas surrounding the shared experience and collective memory.
I was not only born in Florida, but I also studied there, attending the University of Tampa for my BFA degree in Studio Arts and then Florida State University, where I earned my MFA in Interdisciplinary Art in 2012. It’s also where I launched my art practice, took part in numerous group and solo exhibitions, created public art projects, and co-founded an artist collective. Currently, I live and work in Nashville, Tennessee where I teach, keep a studio, and co-organize an artist-run gallery called Unrequited Leisure with my collaborator Clint Sleeper. I landed here in 2018 and have continued to use an interdisciplinary practice to question the ways in which community is performed and also examine how these performances intersect with the construction of identity. Much like my great-grandparents, I am working on building community and making a new home away from home.
Your work employs “cultural imaginaries” such as food. Can you expand more on your definition of a cultural imaginary and explain the role that food plays in your work, specifically in Assembly is Required?
“Cultural imaginaries” is a term used within Latin American, Latinx, and Hispanic Cultural Studies to talk about the “ways and forms” in which cultural meanings are shared within a particular group. For example, things such as food, music, dance, and poetry all have the ability to embody abstract concepts in relation to the identity of a place; in the context of the immigrant’s experience, it’s a place that is imagined, and taken with the immigrant who performs their identity outside of the original site. Stuart Hall, a cultural studies scholar, describes this as an intermediate state; it’s a place neither here nor there.
I have inserted this idea of “taking it with you” into several projects including Assembly is Required, mirroring the idea of performing one’s culture nomadically through the cultivating of food. It also speaks to the idea of creating temporary communities of shared experience. The format of the installation was a raised bed garden on a vehicle trailer with a video of driving along the highway projected onto it. Viewers in the gallery were encouraged to plant seeds and transplant seedlings into soil containers attached to the trailer during the exhibition. Art center staff and interns worked with visitors to collectively care for this living sculpture as it grew a crop of microgreens, herbs, and edible flowers. Through all of our efforts, a generative “place” was created inside the gallery rather than just a passive viewing “space,” which I equate to the concept of place-making. It was included in Art I-10, a group show exploring themes of “identity, a sense of place, and a glance at our global future.” It was presented at a few venues, the most notable being the Acadiana Center for the Arts in Louisiana. That exhibition was funded by an NEA Grant and the gallery was juried into P.S. Satellites: A Project of Prospect New Orleans.
When I think about what defines my own sense of place, my mind immediately goes to food, because even though my family did their best to blend in, assimilate, and Americanize, they also held fast to certain food traditions, and preparing these recipes is one of the ways I can connect with my Latin-ness.
I love that collaboration is a key element to your practice. How do you incorporate this into your process, and do you feel collaborative work is separate from your own practice or tangential? How do you choose the artists you work with?
I have often been referred to as a “serial collaborator” and I enjoy the process of exchanging ideas and seeing how the work can change and evolve through collective thought. In some instances, the conversations about making the work, or the processes of making the work, are just as meaningful as the final results. I do consider it to be separate from my individual practice because when you work with other artists you can generate something that is outside of yourself, something you could never have made on your own.
I can’t say that I have purposely sought out an artist to collaborate with – it usually just happens naturally through having friendships with other artists. I began collaborating on video and sound installations with my gallery partner, Clint Sleeper, when we began working together at Florida State University. For a time, I shared studio space with artist Christina Poindexter, and we worked on a handful of projects. I have also pulled in my husband Mark Baker, who is a musician, for a few sound projects. When you spend enough time together, you know if it’s going to work, and then it’s just fun.
While in graduate school, my cohort and I had studio spaces in a large warehouse off campus where we spent lots of time and energy in a shared workspace and were involved in each other’s practices through critiques and exhibitions. From those shared experiences we began to see relationships in the ways we were working and began developing methods to build upon our individual strengths, together. In our individual practices, we each made objects and images, but as a collective we created performance-based installations that allowed gallery viewers to interact with us and the environments we created. Post MFA, we founded Analog Analogue, an “artist team” as we referred to it, and went on to do some interesting shows together, performing in Miami, St. Petersburg, and Brooklyn. We were also awarded a group residency in Florida and got invited to present at TEDx FSU in 2013. I learned a lot from all of those collaborations, and I know elements of group work still find their way back into projects I do individually.
Can you elaborate on your new body of work, We Buy Gold, and how the series speaks to cultural assimilation on a societal or personal level?
This new body of work is still taking shape, and I am enjoying the process of combining several elements of my research, which include performance, identity, with my family archives. I’m currently creating a video that abstractly connects the process of alchemy (the changing of base metals to gold) with ideas of assimilation and how its effects can transform one’s cultural identity. By mining imagery of buying and smelting gold, I’m attempting to craft both a personal and universal narrative here that interrogates the process of losing one’s identity and visually comparing it to the creation of gold bars from a collective aggregate of unique and individual items. Interrogating the idea of worth and what is lost in trade for financial security and social acceptance is at the core.
Nashville has always been known for its music scene. What prompted you to open Unrequited Leisure and how do you see the visual art scene progressing in the city?
The art scene in Nashville is growing quickly and it is exciting to part of this moment in time. Since moving to Nashville in 2018, I have met many artists that have been here for years, putting in the work to build a strong art scene amongst the city’s music focus. In my opinion, to establish a thriving arts community, an ecosystem of arts organizations has to co-exist. Opening Unrequited Leisure was a great way to participate in Nashville’s ecosystem and simultaneously introduce myself by adding some new voices to the conversation. Our gallery focuses on artists creating screen-based projects and exhibits work that challenges viewers to think critically. I work together with my collaborator Clint Sleeper to curate and organize our shows, that have also traveled to other venues. I feel that our focus on video and new media artists sets us apart and aligns us well with the evolving art landscape.
What upcoming shows do you have both for yourself and at Unrequited Leisure?
I have recently collaborated with Clint to create a digitally printed site-specific sculpture that just got installed at the beginning of June in a community park near the gallery. I have also recently been invited to a group show in the Spring of 2022, at The University of Tampa. The exhibition is called Subsequent Layers, and is thematically exploring approaches, techniques, and concepts of contemporary printmaking and how the boundaries of this medium can be pushed. One of the 4 pieces selected is a video that incorporates a series of prints that function as stills for a stop motion animation.
At UL, Clint and I have just solidified the rest of this year’s programming and are super excited about the future. I am currently curating a solo show of works by artist, Liz Clayton Scofield, an interdisciplinary artist and writer. Their work and their practice involve a “lived” performance in collaboration with tiny 3D printed toy versions of themselves, where they explore how to play, and connect with others. You can probably see the connection here with my own interests. I took a Zoom class that Liz offered through The School of Making and Thinking, called “Desire Paths, A Collaborative Atlas” which allowed me to really be immersed in the way Liz works and thinks, and I felt that their video performance would be a good fit for the gallery.
All photos credit of the artist unless otherwise indicated
Nicole Kutz is a painter and independent curator whose work has been exhibited in galleries, corporate institutions and private collections throughout the world. She received her MFA in 2017 from the Savannah College of Art and Design with a concentration in painting. Her work meditates on life’s transience by using handmade pigments to create ethereal abstract worlds. She frequently draws inspiration from Wabi-sabi and ultimately finds beauty in the work’s imperfections. In addition to her art practice, she was the Chief Curator of Loupe, an online art streaming service, and worked as the curatorial assistant for art advisor, Victoria Burns. Nicole currently resides in Nashville, TN.