I sat down recently with artist Danielle Durchslag to discuss her work, art school, life after art school, and how being an educator has changed her perspective on what it is to be an artist.

Aaron : I was recently listening to an episode of Radiolab where they were discussing the great struggle that happens for a lot of kids after college, when they all-of-a-sudden have to start making choices about what to do with lives in a way that limits the idea of what they might otherwise do and how restrictive that can be.

Danielle : Oh I think that’s totally true.  I also think it’s specifically interesting in terms of what happens after art school, right? Because art school even at its loosest has some sense of assignment and then you leave art school and it’s like, “Well I can make anything! Now it’s time for me to make my work.” I found that absolutely silencing for years. It took me years to actually find a pathway through that because it went from a structured set of problems that I had to solve to a nebulous void. That’s totally frightening! Even though you have to be in that void to find your work, it took me a long time. I would say that I really only started making my “work”…I wonder if I’ll feel this way in five years, but right now I feel like I really started to make my work at like 28, 29 and I’ve been making work pretty consistently since about 18, and that’s a long time, so choice is always tricky that way.

A: What was the process of transitioning from making works with specific goals that were given to you to creating work that was…

D: Mine?

A: Yeah.

Herbie, 2010, Paper, tape, glue, 22 x 24.5 inches

D: I think part of it is that “art school” is the art school that I went to. I went to Museum School for a year and a half after my undergrad and it was a wonderful place, I absolutely loved it, but I mostly took photography classes and so part of what I left that program with was this box of identity that I was a photographer and it took me years to unravel that, to realize that for right now I don’t want to make photographs. That was a huge part of the hurdle because I sort of took on this mantle…and then to allow myself out of that, I…Permission, I think, is the name of the game in art making. It’s the hardest part – giving yourself permission: permission to play, permission to fail, permission to not make photographs. I think that’s the hardest part, at least for me. It is continually giving yourself permission. I think it’s what makes or breaks artists a lot of the time.

A: How did you come to settle on paper as a medium for your work?

D: Well it’s actually a totally bizarre story. I made photographs for a couple of years after college, then I finally gave myself permission to go into gouasche painting, and you can actually see it over there.

[Brings over painting]

This is an example of what my paintings were like. They were very diorama-ish. Gouasche on paper. I was in the middle of making this kind of work when I went to the Slash Under The Knife show at the Museum of Art and Design, which was a couple of years ago now. I don’t know, I think it was before you moved here?

A: Oh definitely. I’ve only been here about seven months. That’s way, way before. I was still living in Arkansas.

D: Oh right, you were still only one of seven Jews in Arkansas at that time!

[both laugh]

D: So I went to this show, Slash Under The Knife, at Museum of Art and Design, and…have you been?

A: No, I haven’t yet.

D: It’s…wow. You have to go. It’s fantastic. It’s one of my favorite museums in the city. I can’t even explain it to you completely, but I walked in there mostly doing paintings and during the show I just knew that I was in the wrong business; that I should be making things out of paper. The show was exclusively artists who use paper. None of those artists do specifically what I do now, but I left that show and spent maybe six months in the studio just playing with paper, trying to come to my pathway through it and it took six months, but I sort of found who I was in paper and I’ve been making objects out of paper exclusively since. That was two and a half years ago maybe? That show absolutely changed my career, and this summer I was in that show on the lower east side that you were so kind to check out and at least two, maybe three artists in that show were also in Slash. It was such an honor to have been really fueled by that show and then get to show with some of those artists. That has been a major highlight for me; I was so honored to be a part of that.

A: That’s an amazing story.

D: Yeah! It was amazing and wild. Doug Beube is one of the artists, and he was so generous with his time and so lovely. All of the artists in that show were so great to me. Adam Fowler, really great artists…

A: It seems a lot of your work is about portraiture; was that true of your photography as well?

D: That’s a great question. My photography was mostly large format, 4 x 5, architectural photography…very German gentleman. Not emotional. I think, honestly, it was out of art school that I had a vision that that’s what real photography was; it was perfect and sharp and very academic, but those images felt nothing like me. I’m not really any of those things. They never really looked like my work.

I once had an art teacher at the Museum School say that the path of an artist- the hardest part of being an artist- is figuring out what work is mine, and that was not mine. You would not recognize me in those images and I’ve never shown them, interestingly. They sit up there in my storage area, but I do not show them. They’re not mine in a funny way.  

A: How did your work come to center on images of people?

D: You know it’s so natural for me. I really like people, and I’m such a psychological thinker that for me the face and the eyes and the expression is not something that I consciously feel was a decision. Once I started giving myself permission to undo a lot of the art school rules I created for myself…

Elieen, 2010, Paper, tape, glue, 31.5 x 28 inches

Eileen (detail)

 

A: What were some of the significant rules that you had to overcome?

D: The idea that emotional work can’t be smart work, that making objects that are accessible is worthless. All of this now feels very obvious to me, but there was a certain theory-based path that we’d been taught in art school that I had to reorient myself against and through. Theory is wonderful; I definitely feel that it still threads through my work, but for me it’s not actually my starting place. I care deeply about people, and I care about objects that are compassionate toward people and toward the viewer; that matters enormously to me. I also love conversation. I love interacting with the human almost more than anything, so when I’m making work the fact that a face emerges means to world to me; it helps me connect.

The Relative Unknown series is actually my relatives. That project is specifically about honoring the people I come from, but that we no longer know who they are. A lot of the core of what I think about, in terms of the portraiture aspect, is about honoring. That’s a word that comes up a lot when I think about it.

A: Would you say that the viewer’s experience of your work is more or less important than your experience of your work?  Do you care about your work transmitting a certain message?

D: These are really great questions. I don’t really think I have any control over what the viewer’s experience is. I often think that once the object is done, it’s folly for me to think I’m still in control. Objects are not stagnant. They shift; they change: when we’re looking at them, who’s looking at them, the context in which we’re looking at them…so I think it’s hubris to imagine that my personal agenda for the object is what wins out. It’s partly why I hate, in a museum or a gallery, when you get that long set of paragraphs that tell you what the piece is about. I would never want my explanation to be the one that wins, partly because how boring: “I decided what it’s about and now I tell you what it’s about.” That’s not a conversation. So, no, I don’t think I have any control over the experience. Does it matter to me? Sure. I hope it’s something beneficial; I hope it’s something that perks them up, but how it does that or their view of it is not within my power.

A: This reminds me of a time I went into a gallery and was asked by the director what I thought a particular piece in the show meant. After I gave him my response, he directed me to the front of the gallery, handed me a press release, and informed me that I was incorrect.

[Both laugh]

D: I think that’s part of the problematic side of the art world becoming so academicized. When I started most artists weren’t getting MFA’s. The idea of a MFA being obligatory was just starting to emerge when I was coming up. The idea that you needed a degree from an academic institution in art beyond a BA struck some people as silly. I don’t think it is silly, but part of what’s complicating about it is that art then follows an academic structure: there’s an analytic, rational explanation for what this is; there’s only one explanation, and here’s the correct explanation. I think that’s very reducing and problematic. It’s not the place I make work from; it’s not how I think about work. I’m an educator. I teach art to kids from all over the city in public schools, and if I told them that their interpretation of a piece was wrong and showed them an academic explanation that was on a sheet, that would be horrific teaching. That doesn’t enliven the mind. That shuts it down.  In some ways I feel like I’m making very contemporary work from a very old fashioned place because I’m not a great fit for “The artist now explains their work.” It’s just not how I understand objects.

Relative Unknown 6, 2011, Paper, tape, glue, 8.25 x 10.25 inches

A: Would you say that your idea or role as an artist has changed since becoming an educator?

D: Oh it’s totally impacted by that. The first complete series I made in paper was The Loved Ones and those are all faces of children. So, in a very obvious way, you could say the content is connected because I look at children’s faces a lot in my week. But more importantly, I would say that what gave me permission to really play and explore with paper is the idea that when you’re an art teacher in the elementary, middle school or high school classroom, but particularly elementary school, it reminds you that objects are magic. Imagine you’re sitting with a group of kids; let’s say third graders- I have a particular sweet spot for third graders; every kid will tell you that they’re an artist, right? No embarrassment. No self-censorship. It’s not because they think they’re the most talented person on earth; it’s because they know they enjoy making art and they feel competent in it in some way.

A: As an educator, what lesson do you most hope to impart to your students?

D: I would say the idea of giving yourself permission and…experiencing the world as visually dynamic, visually alive in a way that’s exciting.

When I first began teaching, it completely impacted me because, to come back to that ‘permission’ word, I saw the amount of permission they inherently had. And because I work K through 12 because I’m all over the place with schools, I can actually watch as they lose that permission by the time they’re in high school, and it has become really clear to me that that permission is really the sweet spot. Partly I think that it reminds me to be good to myself and just go for it on a weekly basis- that has definitely changed since teaching- and part of it is that kids gasp at objects that they think are awesome, right? It gives me permission to really think that objects are incredible again. There’s a certain shutting down of the spirit that happens when you exclusively interact with objects between your nose and the top of your head, whereas a child experiences an object full- body, spirit and everything, including the mind. It’s given me permission to create objects from a place of wonder and excitement, without that clamping down that happens from your critical self. I still struggle with that, but being a teacher reminds me constantly.

A: I love that. I actually wrote down a quote from your artist statement on The Loved Ones series.

D: You did? Oh no! You’ll have to remind me. I haven’t read that in years.

A: It was wonderful. You said that children “fully inhabit emotions without clinging to them – they are open and present in each new moment.”

Relative Unknown 13, 2011, Paper, tape, glue, 7.5 x 9 inches

 

D: It’s totally true. What I love about working with that age group in that series is that when a baby is really young, people respond to it as a baby before they respond to it along the lines of race, class, and gender. There’s something so basic in human experience about a baby crying, or a baby laughing that overrides any of those categories, not completely, but more so than other age groups. I really wanted to make work that was about human emotion and not race, class, and gender analysis because I find that it’s very difficult to make work that actually gets to the ground in those places. I honor the artists who do it, but it’s not my path. I think human psychology is much more my sweet spot.

A: Next came the Relative Unknown series. Could you tell me briefly what the impetus behind that series was?

 

D: In that series I specifically chose images of people I know that I’m related to but that I don’t know, and in fact no one knows. They’re that box of old photos that my family had in the house. If I hadn’t kept them as a kid, my mom would have thrown them away. They were the ones that no one had a label for. No one knows who these people are. We do know that they’re long lost relatives, but no one knows their names or their stories. Even as a little kid, I took it on as my job to safeguard those images and I always knew I’d use them for something. So now I recreate the images in paper as a kind of resurrection. I keep the original photo, but through the remaking and the days and weeks spent getting to know them in this intimate way- they’re still anonymous- but I know the details of their face and their clothing and their context. They get back on the wall. Part of what interests me is using art as a way of getting them out of the bin and back on the wall.

A: What’s next for you as an artist?

D: Both the Loved Ones series and the Relative Unknowns this last bunch of months have yielded a really surprising number of commissions for me. People are giving me their childhood photos or their unknown relatives photos, so I feel like neither of those series is really finished for me because I’m still working in those ways, but with other people’s families and other people’s children. I’ve had two commissions in the last year that were about someone wanting a Loved One-sized image of themselves as a child, which is really interesting as a way to blow-up that small photo that used to be wherever and making it into a much bigger statement about themselves. I love that about the work because it is very intimate work even though they’re not babies I know, or relatives I know. There’s something about it that makes people comfortable in giving me their precious, private images to work with, and I absolutely love doing that.

Relative Unknown 14, 2011, Paper, tape, glue, vintage board, 15.5 x 13.75 inches

All images courtesy of the artist

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