Vixen, 2013. Wood, rattan, and paint, 56 x 32 x 40 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

Unpredictable Beauty: A Conversation with Coleen Sterritt

Winner of the 2019 Outstanding Educator Award

“Heated” is an apt descriptor of Coleen Sterritt’s work. Spun out from a number of influences and techniques, it accelerates into a hot version of assemblage. The heat generated by her work is destabilizing; she’s not interested in ironic, cooled-down distancing. Her objects are present in an urgent, strange, and richly charged mating of change, erasure, and reconstitution that lays bare a conceptual process in which the usual notion of “center” wobbles out past its edges. Sterritt’s work prods insistently at the gaps between natural and manufactured, anonymity and authorship, between art, craft, and mass production.

Martin Heidegger observed that an object becomes a thing when it loses its original function. This aspect of “thing-ness” lies at the conceptual heart of Sterritt’s work, which is entirely constructed from found materials. With the exception of the botanical elements, many of these materials—furniture, fabrics, plastic goods, paint, and hardware—are manufactured. Whether organic or inorganic, however, these components are severed from their intended functions. Sterritt blurs the boundaries defining raw, natural, and found objects, reorienting their primary functions while retaining their original meanings in the reconfigured object. A palm frond, tumbleweed, and chair leg support multiple readings, exploring notions of boundary, dependence, and the nature of reality.

Sterritt is a 2016 recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship; her work is included in numerous public and private collections, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Since 1998, she has been a professor and faculty coordinator of the sculpture program at Long Beach City College.

Rumble Tumble Love, 2018. Tumbleweed, found furniture, and paint, 84 x 36 x 56 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

Kay Whitney: Your work is slyly beautiful and sexy. What is your relationship to beauty? Is it part of a strategy to force the viewer into seeing what is sometimes jarring and dissonant in another light? Coleen Sterritt: I’ve thought about the idea of beauty as it relates to my work for quite some time. Mathematician H.E. Huntley’s remark, “Beauty is a lure to induce the mind to speculative thought,” is on the wall above my studio desk. I think of Dave Hickey’s comment, “Beauty is the agency that causes visual pleasure…by showing us something of which we may not approve in a way we cannot resist.” It’s refreshing that the art world is talking openly about beauty and intuition once again. Some of my early work from the late ’80s and early ’90s—large, organic forms with smooth, evocative surfaces—might be considered more overtly beautiful; but for the last 20 years or so, I’ve been looking for a more unpredictable beauty. I find beauty in the aberrant and the abnormal. The Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi has particularly influenced my thinking about beauty.

Desire comes into it, too; we all want beauty in some form or other to disturb and alert us. I don’t have a conscious strategy for making beauty a force. I use ordinary materials as a means of authentic expression—an unexpected, unconventional, poetic expression. Leftovers and the inconsequential are considered; I’m looking for beauty in the cast-off, imperfect, and used. I want to reveal the poetics of what’s hiding in plain sight.

KW: The impact of your work is accelerated by how you expose the fabrication. The viewer has an acute bodily response to these objects; you can almost hear the tape being pulled off its roll, sense the nails going in, feel the weight of the components where they meet each other. The illusion of an intuitive spontaneity is total, yet nothing in the construction is slapdash—everything is considered, revealing a very specific structure of thought. How entwined are your working method and its result?
I try to be direct with how I put things together. I use materials that inherently have the possibility for transformation, materials and objects that can go beyond their intrinsic identities. I don’t go looking for a particular item unless it’s something like a specific bolt or screw. I improvise. I like to work off of something. I like working with the gleanings: scraps from the studio, discarded older sculptures, garden debris, old furniture, abandoned ideas of one kind or another. I also pose problems to solve. It could be an engineering problem regarding balance and attachments or a more formal question concerning issues of space, plane, line, form—I’m curious. Physical and psychological balance have always been key components. I like the challenge of making a structure work as I balance all the parts physically and metaphorically. The physicality of making sculpture is why I love making it. It’s always been very important to me, because it has been a measure of my energy and commitment to the work, and it still is.

And Then Some (detail), 2012. Wood, bamboo, and strapping tape, 99 x 61 x 40 in. Photo: Laura Goble

KW: Your work functions like a chimera; you make objects that take on the characteristics of their parts without being defined by them. The viewer uses “transference,” in the Freudian sense, to resolve all the disparate elements into an altered reality freighted with symbolic meaning.
CS: If I anticipate anything with regard to the viewer, it’s that everyone brings their own set of circumstances to the viewing of an artwork. I don’t think my job is to dictate a specific interpretation. I like that abstraction or non-representational work poses questions rather than gives answers. I push to avoid references even though I use recognizable forms and objects. The resulting, absurd combinations are both recognizable and not so recognizable—I believe that discovery is just as important to the viewer as it is to the maker.

KW: You had a traditional Modernist training in the art/craft of sculpture. How did you get to making work that stretches, bends, and breaks Modernist codes?
CS: I’ve spent many years working against what I know, working against how I learned to make sculpture the “right” way. I’m conscious of an effort to not always cross my t’s and dot my i’s—I really want to go where I haven’t been before. I had to learn to trust myself, let myself get lost and find my way again.

I got my BFA at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, where the sculpture program focused on formal and traditional skills like foundry work and welding. I excelled in those areas and became the first woman shop technician, even though I was somewhat rebellious toward the idea that I had to do castings; I was more interested in the work of Jackie Winsor and Eva Hesse. I made work using plaster, tampons, wood, latex, and cast metal, which foreshadowed my long-term interest in and love of material possibilities. This was around 1973, and there weren’t many women making sculpture. The sculpture world that I came from was always very particularly a man’s world—very macho, to say the least, and, at times, hard to navigate.

My two years of graduate school at Otis Art Institute (now Otis College of Art & Design) were completely different. There was no fixed ideology, and I had the opportunity to work with artists of extremely different sensibilities, including Betye Saar, Wanda Westcoast, Gary Lloyd, Rick Oginz, and Carl Cheng. I sat in on the lectures of Germano Celant, Miles Forst, and Charlie White. I was introduced to Arte Povera and California Assemblage, both of which have influenced my work. These immensely different experiences informed my creative process, and I began to find my own way.

During this time, I found a loft in downtown Los Angeles and built out my studio. I loved the expansiveness and openness of L.A., and I still do. For me, that openness made it feel psychologically less burdened by male-dominated historical issues, especially for a woman making sculpture.

Stiffy, 2014. Wood, plaster, and paint, 74 x 31 x 32 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

KW: Do you see your work as being situated within certain social or political tensions?
My work is not consciously political. My aesthetic sensibility has identified and captured the personal politics of my life. Though the work begins out of formalist composition, my material choices, most of which come from street finds, the recycling bin, and the construction dumpster, reveal a politically subversive position—politically subversive by its own material identity as being resistant to consumerism and embodying my personal politics. One did not precede the other. The evolution of my work came about through its making, not out of planned intention, hence my ongoing belief in the philosophy that “meaning is in the making.” The commingling of natural, found, and fabricated objects is symbolic of the interdependence of things that I know and love.

KW: How did you come to be an artist?
I grew up in Chicago, a city rich with museums and great architecture. I studied ballet. I spent summers with my maternal grandmother, a great cook, accomplished gardener, and all-round maker, who taught me how to sew and crochet. She was the first creative woman in my life.

One of my father’s older brothers, Jim Sterritt, was an artist, primarily a sculptor, and we grew up surrounded by his work. He was a larger-than-life figure; a much loved, admired, and vastly influential professor. When I was a child, he was teaching at the University of Kansas with Elden Teft and participated in those early casting conferences that evolved into the annual sculpture conference, which is now the ISC. He was the head of sculpture at Washington University in St. Louis until he died in 1995. During my second year of college, I took a sculpture class as an elective and decided then that I would focus on art. It just felt right to me.

EAR,near,Dear,Hear,Clear, 2014. Wood, metal, shellac, and paint, 56 x 40 x 51 in. Photo: Laura Goble

KW: Is there a personal narrative in your work?
If there’s a story in my work, it’s the story of the everyday, the domestic, and the personal. I use materials and objects from my daily experience, which have been objectified enough to address more universal issues. I’m interested in physical and psychological dualities: balance/imbalance, organic/manmade, independence/interdependence, open/closed, separation/union, embrace/entrapment, part/whole, control/letting go. The use of the chair and the giant tumbleweed in Rumble Tumble Love (2018) is a good example—the materials act as metaphors for larger issues. I don’t think about it when I’m working, but I know that the work is a reflection of what’s happening in my life at the moment of its making.

I’ve been enamored with Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space for years. He cites specific spaces and objects as metaphors to talk about daily human existence. He underscores the idea that our simplest household spaces and objects are empowered with significance and imbued with energy as they get used over and over again. I mine moments from my daily experiences as ingredients in the work.

KW: Your titles create an aura of meaning around your work. Where do they come from?
The titles reference people, places, and things that I associate in some way or another with what I’ve made—how or where the materials come from, a relationship, a song, a color, or the nature of how a piece is put together. My mother gave me some wooden bowls she found in a South Dakota antique shop that I later used for parts of EAR,near,Dear,Hear,Clear (2014), with other components coming from friends whose initials I use in the title. Narrow Tall Stacked & Tippy (2018) is a more obvious descriptor.

Narrow Tall Stacked & Tippy (detail), 2018. Found furniture parts, vacuum filters, compressed loofahs, foam rubber, string, and adhesive, 92 x 38 x 40 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

KW: Are there any pieces or periods of time that you associate with significant changes in your work? What may have precipitated those changes?
In 1993, I took a sabbatical from teaching and lived in Ireland for six months. A year later, I was offered a residency at the Roswell Artist-in-Residence Program in New Mexico. Both of these experiences were significant. A series of watercolors that I did in Ireland revealed much to me about my overall process. I started doing five, six, seven, 10, or more watercolors each day. Using singular forms, rich in color and somewhat geometric in origin, the image would grow oddly and awkwardly, kind of like a beautiful, luscious tomato with an aberrant growth or a decaying stump of wood sprouting a new leaf. The Irish landscape amazed me—decayed architecture reclaimed by nature, miles of stone walls, flocks of sheep with their lambs, rich vibrant colors. At the drawing table, I combined these visual images with the workings of my psyche. That’s when I began to understand my overall art-making process: I take things in, churn them through my gut and my heart, and produce a response. I have to make something tangible to help me understand what’s going on in my world. These were small drawings but profoundly important to my studio work and to the understanding of myself overall.

During the Roswell Artist-in-Residence Program, I produced a body of work based on the drawings that I’d done in Ireland. Capturing the essence of the drawings in the sculptural work was challenging and different. My studio experience in Roswell produced works that were shocking to me: funny, awkward, and very erotic. The pieces were made with welded steel armatures covered with plaster, resin, or a combination.

KW: How did you begin incorporating found objects into your work?
After Roswell, I found myself using more ephemeral materials and studio detritus such as cardboard, carpet, plastics, plywood, and bits of dismantled Roswell sculptures. My process began to involve stacking, gathering, folding, and arranging. Recycling materials and making three-dimensional pieces from relatively flat, planar materials opened a door.

I started using found objects in the late ’90s when I moved to Altadena and built a studio. It was an easy, almost unconscious decision because there were pinecones and leftover building materials right outside my door. I liked the idea of using an object or a material that’s had another life, something that had a history, something I didn’t initiate. Furniture from neighborhood recycling days soon started to appear in the work. An old bathroom cabinet from our house remodel became the central component in Vixen (2013); the revealed paint drips from former owners cued my use of color and paint application. Old closet doors became Honey Pile and Tall, Tender, and Extremely Touchy (both 2011). I found that working off a pre-existing condition or circumstance was a way to challenge myself and move forward, and it’s continued to be so.

Tall, Tender, and Extremely Touchy, 2011. Wood, masonite, found furniture, acrylic paint, and adhesive, 80 x 34 x 24 in. Photo: Laura Goble

KW: You’ve started adding cast objects to your work. How are you making them? What changes do you see for your work moving forward?
I incorporated found metal components into a couple of pieces a few years ago, and I was inspired to use more. Many of my current materials are ideal for experimentation with a direct burnout casting process, so that’s what is in the works. The Guggenheim Fellowship from two years ago has assisted in this effort, which has been great. The future? I don’t know exactly where this will take me, but that’s part of the experimentation, exploration, and adventure of it all.

For a full list of Educator Award recipients, click here.