Interview with Brittany De Nigris, Artist

Interview with Brittany De Nigris, Artist

Brittany De Nigris is an artist who explores various materials to construct poetic anatomies that often reside outside of language. Since she has a lot to say about the artist’s connection to time, place and materials, we thought our readers with backgrounds in art or agriculture would enjoy her unique perspective. She has been an artist in residence at Kyung-Hee University in Suwon, South Korea, Art Farm Nebraska, Signal Fire and the Arctic Circle program in Spitsbergen. She earned her MFA from Carnegie Mellon University and works in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We sat down to talk with her about mud, daydreaming, things that break, and why art is as vital as food. 

Terra Cultura: Can you reveal some of the secrets of your creative process? Do you have any mental or physical rituals that aid you in your creative practice? What is your ideal place to work in or ideal way of working?

I find that pushing myself to take one small action often leads to a cascade of discoveries and so I’m always revving myself up to start something small and let it lead me forward.

Brittany De Nigris: Where I work has always greatly influenced how I work and what I make. For a while, that meant I made a lot of things outdoors and the scale got pretty large. When I moved to Pittsburgh and had a dedicated studio for the first time, working inside walls effected me a great deal. The scale got smaller and suddenly piles and storage solutions and accidents became more apparent in the work. For a while, having a room to work in was a struggle for me. Previously I would always seek out travel opportunities so I could immerse myself in new, expansive landscapes and have those settings sort of trip a switch for making. I began to feel self conscious about this–like I was relying on something sensational in order to work. I think I just like to feel like there is a lot of space around me. I find that pushing myself to take one small action often leads to a cascade of discoveries and so I’m always revving myself up to start something small and let it lead me forward. I love making things that I almost never even imagined.

Chiffon #cyanotype #seethru #woodintoash #light #shade

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Wherever I am I find myself zoning out all the time. I realized this when I did my second residency at Art Farm in Nebraska, when someone asked me when I got the idea for a project all I could honestly say was that I would lay down in the grass and stare into space, or at the inside of my eyelids and then I would sort of see things in my head as if I was watching a movie internally. I’m not trying to point at some sort of genius or intervention, only that if I’m scrambling to find something it tends to be evasive and when I’m patient or slow things begin to seem obvious.

I love the alone-ness of working. When I would play as a child, imagining a world or a game and I would hate the feeling of being watched or caught in the act and so a private process of working feels empowering to me. I really love to cook and so when I got a studio I set up a little fridge and a toaster oven and a hot plate but it turns out I hate preparing and eating where I work, it always feels cumbersome and rushed. Even though I think these activities are connected there is a definitive mental space that I get into in the studio. One of my mentors describes this as a sort of blue scrim coming down over her vision when she goes into the studio and everything else that’s part of life recedes. A different act of nourishing, a different way of attending to what needs to be done.

TC: You’ve pursued many educational outlets when it comes to honing your craft, including being almost done with your MFA (congrats!!), artist residencies and your own independent research, experiences and travels. Where have you learned the most?

I have always lived using one experience to get me to the next thing and so I often feel precarious and like I’m hovering. When I look back I see how everything has lead me to where I am at that particular moment and I realize that i’m making a life.

BDN: I really feel like it has all been cumulative. My thesis show, without planning on it, turned out to heavily mine and reflect a residency I had done four years earlier and that had felt like a sort of dormant experience. As I was writing my thesis paper I realized how much of my personal life was central to that writing and I can’t really separate work from anything else in my life. I think the travel and residencies have given me an amazing bank of sensations and images and incredible friendships– all of which I cherish. School gave me three years to be an artist full time, for the first time really, and it really expanded my vocabulary across the board. It forced me to read things I never would have read and constantly look at and talk about art I would never have seen or thought about and that is enlivening. I have always lived using one experience to get me to the next thing and so I often feel precarious and like I’m hovering. When I look back I see how everything has lead me to where I am at that particular moment and I realize that i’m making a life.

Poem field #clay #artfarmnebraska #haiku #dust

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TC: I’m really interested in how place affects art-making. Your work seems to lend itself to discoveries on this topic. Tell us about your creative practice and some of the place-based materials and ideas you incorporate. What have you been thinking about lately in this regard?

BDN: For a long time the first line of my artists statement was ​place is material, not only backdrop, but form, prop and participant​. I would often use ephemeral characteristics of a place, wind or light or dust to activate other materials that I would carry around with me (my human baggage of sorts). The very first residency I did was in South Korea and there I noticed the trees all had these tripod structures built around them to help them grow straight and those forms vesselized thoughts or questions I had– how do you hold things still? That turned into a whe body of work where I stuck very fragile objects and stacks on top of rickety tripods I would make with wooden dowels and tape and rubberbands. When people say that my work or my studio makes them feel like they are outside, I feel like the life of my experiences is getting into the work and that is really satisfying. Somehow these after-images are animated, breathing. I love to walk, and to swim and those immersive experiences of moving through space and material really inform how I work and how the work feels I think. I remember when we floated down the shallow Platte River, feeling the movement of everything and the tiny pebbles scrape and roll of the back of my thighs, looking upwards to a huge blue sky, expansive yellow light.

The ground, or mud holds so much information about how humans have lived and so I think working with place is an unearthing and connecting to the moment I am in but also an expansive, deep notion of time.

I have been writing recently about how language and clay are sort of smooshed together in an evolution of meaning, how the ground, or mud holds so much information about how humans have lived and so I think working with place is an unearthing and connecting to the moment I am in but also an expansive, deep notion of time. Several years ago I has some serious health problems and spent most of a year in a bedroom and I think that experience made me realize how affected I was by place more than anywhere else I had ever spent time. Everything became so condensed and I was mostly just left with myself (the mud). I could tell time by the shape of light on the wall.

Waves on #waves🌊 studio #2017✨

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TC: We’ve talked about place and art-making, so what about time? How does the history of a place effect the artists living and working there? If the past effects the present, can you think of any scenario in which the present effects the past?

BDN: I am starting to feel that the two are constantly interrupting each other. Time is so boggling, we made it and now we must deal with it–or we mark it at least. I often work with materials in situations that are very short-lived and to there is a pulse between fragility and persistence or endurance. I wonder that something I might be doing could be revealing something, or lead to the discovery of something hidden or buried, internal or external. What I do in this moment allows me to hold hands with the past in a way.

I got really into thinking about this when I by chance visited the Babylonian Collections at Yale University. We were allowed to touch these ancient Sumerian clay tablets. One of them, the size of my iphone, inscribed with tiny cuneiform also had a 3000 year old fingerprint accidentally inscribed into its surface. History is a funny thing that seems to be more invented in the present than by the past. I think about this alot with texts that are recovered in fragment–literally broken. Those gaps become imaginative expanses, traversable infinities. Sappho’s poems, recovered in fragments from the paper mache lining of a sarcophagus are translated and rewritten with new pauses, a new sense of time.

I was fascinated to learn the word poiesis–the root word for poetry. Poiesis is a verb instead of a noun and is classically concerned with human creation–​the making and continuing of the world.

TC: You are also a poet. Talk about the intersection of sculpture and poetry in your work. How is the immaterial manifested in the material?


BDN: I like to think of materials being defined by what they do, not what they are. To me, the poetics that reside within language and material matter have shared a co-evolution. They share a home-making. When spoken words became writing they became on lumps of clay: the ground, the place from which we get most of what we need to​ ​survive. In turn, we will be buried in it. Clay has been shelter, paper, vessel, symbol. It records an incredible amount of information; when it is fired the iron in its body aligns to the earth’s magnetic north at that particular wobbling moment, it glows white hot, it endures. It will often do whatever it wants despite my intentions, and for me, the kiln is a speedy archaeological site. I think of material or matter as a support structure for meaning. Sort of like words, or metaphors, the physical materials or objects in a situation point to something that try to emulate a feeling, a moment of being alive.

I was fascinated to learn the word poiesis–the root word for poetry. Poiesis is a verb instead of a noun and is classically concerned with human creation–​the making and continuing of the world.

In the studio things tend to pile up and literally support each other. I am fascinated by the way something can at once be solid and completely effervescent. Language is that way too–it gives shape to so many intangible things, but can also be deleted, erased, buried and lost.

Breaking generates, exposes, forces resourcefulness, acceptance, rage and sadness, or relief; release. It makes necessary mess and necessary maintenance.


Splish splash #ceramic #collage #staycool #swimmingpool

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There are stratifications within my specific vocabulary: There is the material language and an effort to define such things by what they do more so than what they are, this leads to a process language, a script recorded. And then there is my life, and being alive which cannot be ignored, even as breathing and blinking and blood is circulated without my thinking of it. It is more about how much that fact knocks and bruises and squeezes out of me—aware of this predicament of being alive and how searing the gorgeousness of that is. The immaterial is extremely relevant. And materiality is fragile. Fragility is the equivalent of being able to receive. Material can become an energy. They can become the same. They cascade together: a mud-slide. If something has the ability to break, then must it, in essence, be material (must it matter)? There are many ways of breaking: a train of thought, a wave, a porcelain dish, the lead of a pencil, your focus, your stride, a rule, my heart. To call something broken is to imply a lack of function, to point out an emerging distance, the demise of the whole. Breaking generates, exposes, forces resourcefulness, acceptance, rage and sadness, or relief; release. It makes necessary mess and necessary maintenance. A wake. ​Re-formation. If something is made of matter it can be broken. That is simple enough. The spaces created when something is shattered transform the space of a sliver into a traversable distance of possibility—an infinity. How does one break silence? What is the material of a thought? Whatever it is, we have devised a system to represent it so we can see and hear making and its breaking. Do we feel it?

TC: I recently read an article by Bruno Follodar about compost as a creative composition. What are your thoughts on soil, sand, dirt, clay and mud and art/poetry?

BDN: I recently looked at some microscopic images of sand and those were fascinating to me because in their smallness they are very whole little pieces of something–tiny shells and pieces of stone–shells are like a home, stones can be so massive and timeless and here they are as sand, something I think of as being almost liquid. I read that dirt is matter out of place, it is about being transient. There are lots of parables about how humans were formed from mud, but what I am really interested in is the text that is layered in the ground through our objects, our evidence. I learned about a particular kind of Native American burial ritual where a slab of clay is rolled over a body before a pyre is lit on top of it. The body burns and the clay is fired, leaving a buried impression of a body. I have been using the very fragile, broken pieces of things I have attempted to make to form ceramic collages fused by pouring glaze all over piles of pieces and setting them into a kiln to melt together, becoming flowing and bright.

I think art is vital, I think starvation is present beyond the physical body. Sometimes, a successful art work and a successful meal are at their core about connecting disparate parts to make something you can sense, to remind us of the connection that is possible, even through difference. It also reminds that process is a driving force, in order for something to be brought forth it must be tended, or at least set loose and I think that sort of work creates empathy or compassion.

TC: Do you have any thoughts about the link between the generative processes of art-making that nourishes humanity and the process of growing food?

BDN: I think this is a really nice question because the ground is in a way the source location for almost everything that sustains us, and the word ground simply makes me think of support, of bearing weight, of smoothing and holding. I think art is vital, I think starvation is present beyond the physical body. Sometimes, a successful art work and a successful meal are at their core about connecting disparate parts to make something you can sense, to remind us of the connection that is possible, even through difference. It also reminds that process is a driving force, in order for something to be brought forth it must be tended, or at least set loose and I think that sort of work creates empathy or compassion.

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