Landscape Deconstructed at the Hammond: Linda Stillman

Part 1: Linda Stillman – Interview with Jennifer McGregor

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Linda Stillman, Daily Skies: 2020, February 15, 2020 focus, 2021, archival pigment print on paper, 19 x 13 inches

Landscape Deconstructed: Mimi Czajka Graminski and Linda Stillman is a virtual exhibition on view at the Hammond Museum and Japanese Stroll Garden website until June 2022. It is curated by Bibiana Huang Matheis. The opening on September 11, 2021, included a virtual conversation with Mimi Czajka Graminski and Linda Stillman moderated by Jennifer McGregor which has been distilled and reformatted for individual interviews with each artist.

The Hudson Valley artists met in 2011 and were immediately struck by the similarities in their work and have continued a dialogue since then. Landscape Deconstructed is the first time their artwork is presented in tandem and underscores the way that both artists discover elements of their surroundings and reassemble them in ingenious ways. Through distinct processes, they each preserve fleeting moments of beauty in nature while documenting a particular time and place.

You’ve been documenting the sky every day since 2005 in your Daily Skies series. Since time is such an important element in all of your work, how has this project evolved?

I started out making paintings of a section of the sky on a little panel. To keep the project fresh, I changed the format each year, mounting the panels in different ways. The paintings in Landscape Deconstructed are from 2011. They are mounted by month in the form of a calendar on shaped panels that float away from the wall to create shadows, that give physicality to each month.

After many years of painting on panels, I turned to various media, drawing, painting on paper, collaging and then photography. This year I’ve been taking a square photo of the sky with my phone, facing North at noon each day. I then post it on a dedicated Instagram account along with a photo of the ground.

While the format has changed over the years, the desire to have a daily practice and record a fleeting moment remains the same. Taking time to look up at the sky each day is my way to honor and celebrate nature.

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Linda Stillman, Daily Paintings: March 2011, 2011/2014, acrylic on paper on panels, 15 x 14 x 3/4 inches

Collaborating with nature is part of all of your work, but in the ‘August’ Garden project you created a calendar through the garden beds and photographed them over time. What did you learn from this collaboration?

To combine my love of gardening with my desire to make art, I embarked on a project to plant a calendar of flowers and herbs in my garden and to document it over time. The project concerns the passage of time in nature: how flowers grow and die and how we try to preserve the memory of fleeting moments of beauty.

The artificial format of the monthly calendar provided a design format, and I used the month of August as that is when gardens are at their peak. I planted annuals in the sequence of the color spectrum, a different color for each day of the week. Sundays were planted with all white flowers, then Mondays with yellow, Tuesdays with orange, Wednesdays with red, Thursdays with violet, Fridays were blue and Saturdays, the biggest cooking day of the week for me, planted with herbs. Many of the flowers I purchased didn’t conform to the color on their tag or didn’t hold up to the full sun and had to be replanted with a different variety. The unruly plants soon outgrew their plots and obliterated the carefully placed grid of paving stones.

I photographed the garden from high above in a cherry picker in July, September, November and the following May to show the passage of time. Seeing the progress from seedling to full growth to death reified my interest in time in nature,

From this project I learned that it’s impossible to control nature and that you have to be open to failure. Gardening is similar to making art: you have an initial vision, but it often has to be adjusted along the way.

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Linda Stillman, ‘August’ Garden-in July, 2001/2008, archival pigment print of photograph of land art installation, 8 x 12 inches on 11 x 14 inch paper

Since March 2020, you’ve been spending much time in your upstate New York studio. How does place inform your work and have there been any surprises since spending so much more time in nature?

Living here in the country full time since the onset of Covid has been transformative. While I always loved and appreciated nature, my relationship with the outdoors has deepened greatly. I feel part of my surroundings and want to learn more about the flora around me.

On my daily walks down our street, I have been learning the names of the plants. Many of them are invasive and threaten our environment by robbing native plants of light, water, and nutrients, which leads to a loss of biodiversity. Identifying, naming and distinguishing invasives from similar benign species has led to a new body of work.

Now when visiting New York City, I am amazed by how disconnected I feel from nature and the weather. Looking up at the sky is a conscious effort and finding a patch of earth is a struggle.

There is a distinct form or arrangement in your work. The geometric patterns in your ‘August’ Garden project and in the leaf collages make me think of the simplicity of Shaker patterns. What are the influences in your work?

Multiple influences combine in my work. I love Shaker art and have always been interested in folk art in general but most especially quilts. I’m attracted to the geometric patterns and use of discarded materials.

My first career as a graphic designer working with grids had a profound influence on my art. I have a need to create order and am attracted to the work of artists who use the grid like Agnes Martin . I am fascinated by the graphic woodcut illustrations in antique herbals and by botanical herbaria, and the way they order and preserve nature.

My favorite painting is Moss Roses in a Vase by Edouard Manet. I always have a postcard reproduction of it with me in my studio. It has been a talisman and a conceptual inspiration for my work.

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Linda Stillman, Hillsdale Sampler (Verbena-Angelonia), 2019, flower stains, graphite & ink on paper, 12.5 x 9.5 inches

What goes on in your studio; what aspects of your process come from your relationship to nature, such as the flower stain samplers and the leaf collages?

I discovered the technique of flower staining when I was documenting the ‘August’ Garden project and have been using it ever since. The stain drawings are made from flower petals, rubbed onto paper, creating traces of ephemeral color while containing small remnants of the flowers. Over the years I’ve learned which flowers create the most vibrant, long-lasting stains and I plant those varieties in my garden. Verbenas are my favorites. The Hillsdale Sampler records what was flowering in my gardens in 2019. I incorporate the names of the flowers in this and other pieces. Naming is important to me as a way to know and remember something.

For years I have gathered and preserved leaves in the fall to use later. I put them in a professional plant press or old phone books to dry. When I’m in rush I microwave them. When dried, I glue fragments of leaves on paper or panels, contrasting the biomorphic forms of nature with geometric forms in an attempt to create order.

I consider the flower stains and the leaf collages a collaboration with nature. They embed the idea of the fleeting nature of time.

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Linda Stillman, Tree Tree Tree, 2020, ink & collaged leaves on paper, 30 x 22 inches

All images courtesy of the artist.

Linda Stillman works in various media, investigating concepts of time, memory and nature. She has been awarded fellowships and residencies at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Wave Hill’s Winter Workspace, The Studios at Mass MoCA and the NYFA Mark program. Her work has been featured in solo and group exhibitions including the Brooklyn Museum, Hunter College Art Galleries and the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey. Stillman’s work has been reviewed in numerous publications including The New York Times and Hyperallergic. Her work is included in collections such as the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. 

Jennifer McGregor is a curator and arts planner who brings expertise in ecological art, curating/programing, and public art planning to artist-centered work. For over two decades she conceived place-based exhibitions at Wave Hill. There she activated connections to the environment by producing adventurous projects that explored nature, culture, and site. Through McGregor Consulting she works with clients and collaborators to develop strategies that engage non-traditional public spaces, diverse audiences, and dynamic artists.