On the Record with Artist Christi Birchfield
This past Wednesday, 2016 Creative Workforce Fellowship award-winning artist Christi Birchfield visited Oberlin for a talk about her work as a multimedia artist with a passion for printmaking. Having received her BFA in printmaking from the Cleveland Institute of Art and an MFA in visual art at Columbia University in New York City, Birchfield has participated in artist exchanges in Skowhegan, Maine and Germany. In 2006, she held a residency with the Cleveland print shop Zygote Press, where she now works as a production manager, helping bring other printmaker’s visions to fruition. Works by Birchfield — including graphite erasure drawings, mesmerizing botanical prints and hanging 3D geometrical sculptures — have appeared all over the world from MOCA Cleveland to China, and several are part of the permanent collection at the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. Birchfield sat down with the Review to discuss her work at Zygote, making meaning through process and the new cosmic etching she’s making for Oberlin’s Art Rental Collection.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Do you feel like your location influences your work? You talked a little bit about being in New York and the corner bodegas where you would buy flowers…
Definitely. I think location influences my work for a couple of reasons. Cleveland, and where my studio is especially, and these kind of neighborhoods that I think artists tend to find themselves which are maybe a little downtrodden because of just the economic climate in those areas, tend to be considered a rough part of town, and where I work at Zygote, I’m driving through bits of Cleveland that are really… I see things that seem sad. So I’m constantly confronted in this very entitled [position], in that I’m in my car able to drive through and drive back to my nice apartment at the end of the day. But I think that kind of experience of Cleveland, and these things that I see that are either shocking or make me stop and think, definitely impact my work and definitely play into how I think about life. … I think living in New York there’s this pace that was different than what Cleveland is and I think my work had to keep up to that pace, versus here, [where] I feel more liberated to take a step back and be slower about how I make things.
You talked about working with other artists at Zygote, and you described yourself as a technician. What’s your process for bringing other artists into the studio to work with you?
Sometimes the artists that I end up working with are resident artists at Zygote. Zygote has a resident artist program, you know, I talked about my time [working at Grafikwerkstatt] in Dresden, [Germany] — that’s an exchange program actually — so when Ohio artists are in Dresden, two Dresden artists are in Ohio working. Just this past month I was working with the Germans who were here on their projects. Sometimes — which it’s great when this happens — artists have a project in mind and then end up approaching us…for us to help them make it. So we just worked with this artist Jenny Jones. She’s this photographer; she’s probably 84 years old. We just did this series of lithographs with her. And so she came to us and asked us to do that for her.
Something that I noticed was there are aspects of performance in your work, even though your work is certainly not performance art. Can you speak a little bit about that?
I think when I was working on these graphite drawings, whenever I would have a studio visit, the performative quality of them would always come up. And at that point I was kind of like, “What are you talking about?” People would always talk about that at my studio, and I was so not interested in that, but what they were talking about was this kind of like ‘me versus it,’ and me kind of having to take on this [thing] that was bigger than me. My studio at that time was absolutely covered in graphite powder, and so the environment took on the work and took on the materials, and so did myself. I had graphite powder in my nostrils all the time. And so it was like [I was] literally breathing my work, and that was where that conversation sort of entered. I think for somebody who deals with process as much as I do, it’s impossible for me to talk about my work without talking about process because I find meaning in the processes that I use, and meaning and purpose surfaces through these processes. So then if the process is the work, then there has to be this attention given to that, and that’s where I find myself dealing with documentation and video. And it’s something that I deal with when I feel like I need to, but it kind of presents itself, …I don’t see myself as a performance artist by any means, but when an idea surfaces, that this documentation of the performance of the making makes sense, then that’s when I would make a video, and I guess I could have responded to the question of [the person who asked a question at the talk earlier] with that it’s almost like this urgent need to document it, and it’s not — for me — something that needs to be slick or anything.
Going off of that idea of making meaning out of process, I wasn’t quite sure if I saw a more mathematical or calculated approach in your work, or something more spontaneous and liberating — or both — and I was wondering how you derive meaning from those two very different modes of working.
For the fabric pieces, for instance, I’m turned onto this way to approach materials and then can follow that carrot for a while. And it’s kind of like, either that idea will sink or swim. There will be something that will then create this curiosity for me to then continue to pursue it or to abandon it. And sometimes I feel like maybe, possibly I abandon ideas too quickly, but it’s almost just this idea after having this studio practice for so long, it’s like I’ve come to understand that there’s this aspect of faith that needs to be present in that as long as I continue and keep pursuing these materials or a certain way of working, I guess I should say, then something will happen. And what I was saying in regards to [Professor Kristina Paabus’s] question, for me it always takes longer to get to this point of feeling like, “OK, this is a resolved moment,” versus an artist who maybe has this clear set of plans going into a project, and so that’s where sometimes this occasional envy will take place on my part — not to say that somebody that approaches work in a different way has it easier, because making art is hard, but to maybe then be able to turn back around and talk about it and sort of have this sort of statement to go along with the work, because it’s so experiential and has to do with this kind of journey. If somebody’s like, “What’s the influence?” or “What’s the meaning of the work?” whatever that means, I can feel stumped, and then that’s when vulnerability comes in because it’s like, what am I doing anyways?
Can you talk a little bit about the print you’re making for Oberlin’s Art Rental Collection?
I’m going to be working on an etching. It’s gonna be two plates that I had in my studio for a while that are these cosmic scapes that feel like a star scene, but they’re both aquatints. What an aquatint is is basically [taking] an image from rosin dust and then etching that dust and creating kind of a value range by doing that, and then painting with acid onto the plate, so there’s this alchemical that occurs by making the plate the print [itself], so I really respond to that as a printmaker — this aquatint approach to making a plate — so I’m gonna work out a few kinks with it tomorrow, so tomorrow is going to be a little bit of a proofing day and then the addition’s gonna be made on Friday.
Are you making that all here, or did you start it already?
So, I have proofs of the plates. The plates are made, I might have to tweak them a little. But yeah, that’s the plan.
Your work, like that of many other artists, has evolved in many different ways, so I’m wondering what has provided your impulse to evolve as an artist and where do you see your work going next?
That’s a really, really good question, and one that I think about all the time. I think, just paying attention to the work, it would be impossible to not have changes occur in how artists make. So I think sometimes — I was saying to Kristina — sometimes I feel like this all-over-the-place artist that has kind of multi-personalities, but giving talks like I just did, it’s really helpful to take a step back and look at this chronological order that things have happened in, and the more time goes on, the more work happens. It’s this expanse all of a sudden of being able to look at this bigger picture, and so it’s exciting to have opportunities like this to be kind of forced to look at everything. But in terms of where things are going, I’m excited about the fiber processes that I’ve been working in and, you know, [finding] that there’s calling for other elements to come into play. For the show that I just had in Savannah, the work was hung on this metal chain just out of pure necessity of getting it up quickly and we had only two days to install, and so I wanted it to feel like this laundry line hanging on a chain; then when I had it in my studio, I felt like a chain felt like this foreign object in relation to this warm fabric, and so I decided to incorporate the chain … by making my own chain with papier mâché, and linking wheat paste and paper together to continue that as part of the composition — and so that was an exciting moment for me in that piece and a small step in a slightly different direction of how to expand the sculptural elements. A lot of the work depends on the wall, and it’s hovered between painting and sculpture right now, and I’m interested to see what will happen if the work really comes out into the floor.