Q&Art with Russell Pirkle

This week: Ashley Feagin, artist and grad student at Louisiana Tech. Ashley’s latest piece is Devour: Daily Consumption and Restoration. You can find Ashley’s work and statement at ashleyfeagin.com and learn more about the Devour project on facebook at http://www.facebook.com/add_email.php#!/event.php?eid=214503108615136

Let’s do this, Russell.

Okay, let’s do it.

Start by telling me about the project that we’re at right now.

Okay. Devour, the Consumption and Restoration Project, the concept behind it is for everybody to connect on a pscyhological level. The fact that we all struggle with issues with our body, no matter what we look like. And then also that those things resonate in our mind, and they constantly come up. It’s stuff that we deal with, but also a topic that you really don’t talk about that often. So basically what I wanted to do was make this generic format where people could voice what they’re struggling with internally. So for a month I’m eating lunch at this table everyday. And then also I’ve carved into the table, and I’m asking participants to carve into the table, the negative thoughts that they’ve had about their body or their image. Either stuff that they feel or they’ve been told about themselves. Whether they still struggle with it or not. And then every week, like on Tuesday, I go and I sand the table down. I try to get rid of those negative phrases. Hoping to lessen the impact. Because this is something I struggled with. I grew up never as the skinny person. I always was the chunkier girl. And so I was picked on a lot. But it wasn’t until college that I started to really become confident in who I was, and not necessarily listen to other people. My image doesn’t define who I am. Well, my weight doesn’t define who I am. What I intend for this project to do is for people to connect that everybody struggles. And that you can be an amazing, awesome person, no matter what shape or size you are. And that confidence comes not from your outside exterior, but from inside of you.

Could you talk a little bit more about the significance of sanding down the marks?

The sanding down is hoping to reduce what people have actually written on the table. And it talks about, for me, those moments when you gain confidence with yourself, and you become comfortable with who you are. But yet you still have those things resonating inside of you. Because even if I am comfortable with who I am, I still have some doubts that linger on, from things that people have said about me, and that I’ve thought about myself. WHen I sand down the table, depending on how deep people have actually carved into the bare wood. There’s one particularly that says, “I’m scared that I’ll never find true love because of my weight.” And it was carved in the table really deep. And that was something that, though I didn’t write that, I also resonate with that statement. So it’s one of the ones that I tried really hard to get off but I couldn’t. And now somebody’s come back and put ink into the carving, so obviously that’s something that’s a phrase that a lot of people have identified with.

What have people carved with generally?

Oh goodness. Everything. Keys. Paperclips. Nail Filer. Somebody brought out a knife and really got into it. A nail. Just any sharp object they have.

One interesting thing to me about the project is, these are very personal things that people might not want to share. Why do you think they do share them?

I think because they see that other people are doing it. And they find that connection to another person. Even though the other person is not physically there, the emotion of the other person is left in the table. And so they can connect with that and feel also connected with it. Most people do not carve at the lunch time. They carve outside of the lunch time.

How do you think the act of eating lunch with these people affects the meaning of the piece?

It’s been really interesting because when I do eat lunch with people, we get into conversations about people’s body. Like, I had lunch with a couple of girls who I consider to be really fit and, quote-unquote, what you should look like as a female, but they still had issues with their body that they struggled with. And I think the fact that the table has two chairs, instead of four or five, also emphasizes that idea of conversation. Like I’m making this a conversation even though people aren’t there all the time. This table exists as a conversation. But back to the lunch times, it’s really brought people together to discuss these issues. It’s been fascinating to see what people are willing to share.

Do you think there’s a connection between food and being self-conscious about eating, and then the body image aspect of the project?

I think there is on some level. For instance, another part of the project is I’m documenting what I eat everyday for thirty days. And I’m going to make a calendar, showing what I ate. And it’s shown me personally that I’m so busy that I eat fast food a whole lot. So I think there is that connection, but I didn’t want it to go into the health route. I wanted to delve into the psychological aspect of it.

Something I was thinking about this morning while I was considering this project, you know the obesity rate in America, and how other countries are becoming fatter as well, and it seems as if this is an issue that needs some kind of resolution. It makes me wonder if maybe ten or fifteen years from now, being overweight won’t mean the same thing it does today. What are your thoughts on that?

I think it fluctuates. Because if you look back in early paintings of females, what was considering beautiful was a very curvacious and volumptuous body. Because those people who did have money were able to eat, and those people who didn’t have money were skinny. And so our idea of beauty has switched, and I’m curious to see if it will ever switch back. I think that more people are taking the initiative to say this is who I am. Personally, even if I was to work out all the time, I know that I would never be a size one or two or three. It’s just not going to happen. And I think that’s where this conversation is. No matter where you are, you have to accept how beautiful you are, and how you look. And be confident in who you are. I think it’s so important for people to have a mental health before they have a physical health.

What has the experience of doing this project been for you so far? What have you gotten out of it? What has been hard about it?

The thing that I have gotten out of it is the connection with other people, having other people carve something into the table and being like ‘oh I was going to carve something like that into the table today!’ And also like I said previously, I do eat a lot of fast food. Haha. And I know I’m not getting enough vegetables. And I do love vegetables. But I take them off of my burger. Haha.

What is the point of a daily project? Why is that somehow more meaningful than just doing something just whenever you have time or every few days or something like that?

For me the reason that I was doing it every single day is I wanted to emphasize the daily struggle that people have with these thoughts in their heads. And I also wanted to make myself accessible to people on a daily basis, and I wanted to be able to check and see what’s been written on the table. I think that me just checking up on it once a week and having a big meal lessens the impact. I feel like I’m more fully committed to it when I do it everyday as opposed to once a week or something like that.

You were talking earlier about this project, I don’t remember your exact wording, but helping people to have a dialogue or a conversation about stuff. I was thinking about this shift from art as this introspective, personal expression type activity, to more about exploring communication. Like, even graphic design is now communication design, and things like that. What are you thoughts about that?

I think there is a push when it comes to site specific art or performance art. One of my personal heroes/art crushes is Marina Ambramovic. And I guess that’s why being here daily has been so important to me. Her recent piece The Artist is Present that she did at the MOMA. I forgot exactly how many days it was. I know it was a good couple weeks. She sat in a chair, and she allowed participants to sit across from her. And all they did was stare at each other. And it became a very emotional connection. Because sometimes as artists, all we do is put a piece up on the wall, and we’re removed and we allow people to respond to it. But by being there daily, you get to see what your piece is doing. You get to see the interaction and the feedback from people. And I think that’s one of the things that also inspired me to be here daily. Is being actually present in the piece and not removed from it. But I think there is a push . . . Also another artist who responded to Marina Ambramovic. I’m going to mess up her name. She’s an Asian artist. She did The Artist is Almost Present, where she set up a twitter feed, and she tweeted between the participant that sat down in front of her. And so they communicated via 140 characters. But she was still able to connect to people on a different level. Because ultimately that’s what art is about. We want something that’s so personal to us to be put into a piece to become a universal conversation. But we are removed from it because we put it up on a wall and then we stand back. So I think artists are wanting a little bit more.

In this piece, there’s no mastery or skillset involved. And I think for people outside the art community those pieces are the most suspect or the most open to derision. What makes this piece valid in the same way that a piece that shows mastery would be.

I see the validity in the fact that there have been some elaborate carvings into the piece, if you want to talk about skillset or mastery. That other people are allowed to carve into the table so you get to see their hand and their impression. I also think that the skill mastery conversation is starting to become, and I don’t want to say this in a mean way, but it’s almost old and dated. Because art has moved past just painting and drawing. And I’ll even clump photography into that. There’s a lot of media that have no classification now that are still considered art.

In your last two projects, this one and the large piece in the hallway . . . What’s it called again?

Shift and Ache.

In both those pieces, you’ve moved  away from photography. Can you tell me the reason behind that move?

I experimented a lot with installation art in undergrad, and also the beginning of my graduate. For the first six months I didn’t take  a photograph. I did installation and mixed media stuff. I believe that I should make a piece in the best way it can be communicated. And so if it doesn’t need a photograph, it doesn’t need a photograph. And I’m okay with that. I consider myself an artist and not just a photographer, if that makes sense.

Could you tell me about the progression from the other work I’m familiar with of yours, the white photographs, to this work?

This work, I wanted to continue with that installation stuff. I took a class with Nick Bustamante last quarter, and it’s been in my directed study with him. And I feel like this work is a lot more personal. The Shift and Ache deals with a specific situation in my life, and this one also. I’m addressing specific issues in my life, and turning those into art pieces. As opposed to having an idea or concept or theme. This is me internalizing what I’ve dealt with and putting it out there.

Do you see any themes that have been present in the earlier work and the work that you’re doing now?

Are you talking about my photo work?

Mhm.

Other people see connections, but I haven’t seen the connection just yet. I think that’s because my photo thesis work is just at a breaking point now. Maybe later I might. But right now I see them as two separate beings.

Two things that I see, one is the use of the color white, even in the installation piece that’s in there. Can you tell me about the significance of that?

Always for me when I use white it’s to symbolize purity and cleanliness and unobstructiveness. Just the purest state possible. In the piece in the hallway, I wanted as much of a violent reaction to the dye moving up the fabric as I could. And so, white being completely engrossed in this red dye was the most violent that I could think of.

The other theme that I see throughout is food. In some of your photography and also your personal life as a person. What do you see as the meaning or symbolism of food in your work?

I’m a southern girl, and I came from a really southern family, and a southern mother who loves to cook food. And the table was always this place of family and encouragement, and there was this comfort there. And so food has always had those ideas attached to it. So when I use baking a pie or cleaning up a mess of food in my photographs, that’s what I’m connecting to. It’s this source of I’m inviting you into this comforting space with me by sharing a meal with you.

How has your family history influenced your work.

A lot. Haha. And that’s something right now that I’m dealing with with my photographs. And so when I come to a conclusion about that I’ll share it with you, but right now I’m still wrestling with it. Because I grew up with a very southern religious family, and it has impacted my work a lot. I’m sorry, that’s a really personal question right now. Haha.

Another really obvious influence is religion. And I’m interested in, one of course how it influences the work and what part it plays. But also I was thinking about, with most of your projects there’s a sort of problem or tension that’s very personal that’s being resolved through the work or explored. Do you see your experience with religion as being approached in a similar way with the works?

Yes, I do. And I believe that religion and the topic of my upbringing, my heritage, is very much a propellant for most of my work. But again, it’s one of those things that I’m just starting to realize is making so much of an impact on my work. I was subconsciously doing it, and now it was brought to my attention. It was one of those moments like oh okay, that’s really what my work’s about. And I’m sorry Russell, I can’t give you a better answer than that. Just the fact that I’m seeing those things, and it’s really personal. So once I resolve them, I’ll be able to.

One interesting aspect about these two pieces, your most recent pieces, they require the context of some sort of work statement to go along with them. What’s your feelings about that situation . . .

Project statements? Do I feel like their necessary? I feel like in some situations, yes. Particularly, with this Devour piece. Because I’m wanting people to actually do something, I feel it’s absolutely necessary for there to be one. I feel like with photo work, the work should exist on its own, and the project statement or artist statement should just give an extra sparkle to the piece. And with the piece in the hall, a lot of people got that tension that I was trying to imply without even reading the artist statement. With installation work, I’m fifty-fifty. With some pieces I need that artist statement, especially with others’ work, to help pull me in. But with other pieces, I can get it without being overwhelmed, without the statement. It really depends on the piece.

Who are some of your favorite artists?

Marina Ambramovic is a big influence right now. Erin V. Sotak. She’s a photographer, but she’s also an installation and performance artist. She has influenced my photographic works. Of course, I still like the greats like Sally Mann and Diane Arbus. Richard Avedon. I think he was a brilliant man. Jeanine Anthony is another one. Anne Hamilton. She’s another good one. Sarah Hobbs. I have a huge list of photographers that I could just rattle off that have been really influential in my own work. But I connect with people that I can tell their person is in them, they’re bringing their lives into their photographs.

How has being an artist affected your life as a whole.

Art is therapy. Even if you don’t realize it, art is therapy. Because every piece that you put out there is a part of who you are in some form or fashion. So it’s a little narcissistic. For me as an artist, it has helped me give a voice, and have a voice. If I wasn’t making art, I don’t know what I would do. On any level, performance, art, if I was acting, I was playing piano, whatever it is. Those avenues for me, are spiritual.

And, what about the other side? What effect does it have on the viewer? Do you see it as similar or the same or something entirely different?

I think it is an enlightening process to go view art, honestly.

Do you think it’s therapeutic as well?

I do. But it’s also dependent on how much a viewer is willing to think. If a viewer gives up on a piece of art because they don’t understand it, then they’re missing out on something that the artist is wanting to say.

You’re teaching now. What has that experience been like?

Great. I went into grad school not knowing if I really wanted to teach. I thought about teaching, and it wasn’t until that first quarter. Joey Slaughter was the professor I was TAing with. And he gave me a photoshop assignment in a basic design class. And I gave it, and once the students started connecting and making that connection, and I saw their progress. Well, you were in that class! I remember just one day being like ‘holy crap I love teaching!’ I don’t know, I feel like you should always give back, in life in general, and you should help other people out. And if I can give something to other people, like knowledge and art or whatever, then I want to do it. It’s this collaboration between teacher and student that is really exciting. Because I learn just as much from the students as hopefully they’re learning from me.

What have you found that works, as a teacher?

Games. I know that sounds really weird, but for the first four weeks of class, I start every class with some icebreaker or stupid game. Because you need your class to have some type of camaraderie. We’ll get into class and we’ll become comfortable with who we sit by, etc. And so when it comes to critique, you don’t have that where people aren’t comfortable enough to really give feedback. Now on the flipside, it can become where people are so comfortable with each other that they don’t want to offend each other. So it’s learning that balance of getting the class to become comfortable with themselves. They get real excited. At the beginning of this quarter I had one student tell me, it’s like summer camp coming into your class. But I can definitely see that in their critiques, that they’re comfortable with each other and they can say ‘ok, this is working and this is not working.’

I think that’s all the questions I have. Is there anything that you’d like to add?

If you want to come carve on the table and come eat, come eat! And if you can’t make it you should come to my thesis show in March!

Thanks for speaking with me, Ashley.

Not a problem.

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