Interview with Carole Garmon

Carole Garmon, Assistant Professor of Art, has taught at the University of Mary Washington since 1998 and received the Alumni Association Outstanding Young Faculty Member Award in 2002. She holds a B.F.A. and an M.F.A. in Sculpture from Virginia Commonwealth University and has participated in national and international exhibitions. Garmon is a member of the College Art Association and the Arlington Arts Center and serves on the board of 1708 Gallery in Richmond, VA. Garmon teaches 3D design and sculpture.

Could you discuss how your sculptures inspired by Rembrandt, in particular “The Anatomy of Mr. Tulp,” flirt with crossing genre lines?

As an artist an a teacher, I’m delving into these same ideas about what constitutes different genres of art, but also more importantly; where do all of our ideas come from? For creative writers, or fine artists or musicians or whoever.

But with that in mind, I do have such a sincere dedication for respect for my tradition. So even though my art is much more contemporary, I still reference back to what came before me.

At some point, probably as a grad student, I found myself always going to these huge museums with my classmates and looking at all the contemporary work, but instead, I would find myself drawn to the Dutch portraits and I couldn’t figure out why.

But then one day, it was as simple as just seeing a painting with some dogs hunting. I still don’t even remember who did the painting. But these dogs were hunting and they actually had coats on.

I started wondering what the artist was thinking about when he painted these dogs. I really got interested in the artist, almost as much as the art. Which took me to Rembrandt because he started doing a lot of self portraits, hundreds of them. The more research I did on him, the more I began to understand that the things the Dutch were going through at the time are what we’re going through now. They had dissolved their monarchy and were moving to going more democratic. All of a sudden, artists were no longer painting for a patron. In the past, if you wanted to be in the painting, you had to pay. Rembrandt started making art for the sake of art, and that’s what I wanted to do.  He’s the beginning of what I’m doing now. So I started painting.

After I first showed my paintings incorporating Rembrandt, I went back to my studio and said, “what the hell have you done.” You’ve painted, and he already did it so well, so what is it you’re trying to say about this work. So what, you painted.

Painting became kind of an ego thing, to see if I can do it. So that’s where I came up with the white line.

A white line delineates something past, like a dead body. I thought, rather than do paintings, I’ll pick one character from the paintings and create a dialogue with him.

The dialogue will come in whatever genre I need. I decided Tulp would be my person.

I did a lot of research and used Tulp as my mirror. He’s a digital transparency taken from the original painting. If you look at the images, sculpture cloth is set up to mirror Tulp’s hand. I wanted to add a mirror because I wanted the viewer to stay in the now and see themself in Tulp’s hand. So he’s mounted so you see your own reflection.

While I was making “Mr. Tulp,” I was taking a creative writing course with Claudia Emerson as part of a teaching innovation program; a partnership where she took my class and I took her class. We began to realize that day-to-day we were lecturing about the same things; that I was talking about materials, plasters and things, and she was talking about words. She would talk about the form of a poem, and I would talk about the object. We talk the same lingo.

I was writing a poem for her class, it was a letter to Rembrandt about his work and I had no idea what to title it. And Claudia is a stickler on titles. It’s so cheesy but I ended up opening up the dictionary to the term “mort main,” which means “dead hand” in French, or the handing over of authorship. I thought “oh my god, that’s what’s happening with me and Rembrandt.”

For Randolph Macon College’s “Artists and Writers” exhibit three years ago, you teamed up with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Claudia Emerson to create art about sewing birds. Could you elaborate on this collaboration?

They wanted an artist and a writer to work together. Both of us are the same when it comes to making art; I didn’t want to make an art piece about a poem she had written, and she didn’t want to write a poem about an art piece that I had made. We just don’t work like that. So we came up with something that we would both approach artistically.

The sewing bird that Claudia took was very Victorian and pristine looking; mine was much more sleek and streamline. We bought them at the same Antique store and started thinking about it.

I was inspired by the concept of a bird that can’t fly-it’s clamped on the table. Sewing birds were also a common gift that husbands would give their wives as a wedding present. So what I did is took the scale of a double bed to create the association of marriage.

What specific genres do you think you incorporate with sculpture the most?

As we speak, I’m really interested in video. Well, really video and text. I’m interested in words.

Right now I’m exploring how I can put a few words together and come up with different meanings. For instance, when you say “That’s what’s that,” depending on how your intonation and inflection, could have so many different meanings. Playing with three simple words.

Another idea just recently came to me; when I was a kid, my mother was babysitting a bird for the family next door. I can remember taking it out of its cage while my family wasn’t home. I don’t know if I squeezed it too tight or if it died of fright, but the bird died in my hands. I was horrified. Now that I’m older, I’m a pet-rescuer. I also just recently lost a car last year, and he died in my arms too.

It came to me the other day to explore the phrase: “holding something dying.” Just three words again. I’m interested how you can play with just a few words by adding slashes and emphasis.

I love Google. I was researching something else the other day and came upon the phrase “Coal Mining in Arkansas.” What a title! I ended up creating a piece based on those words.

I also was googling to find the proper term for “birds who can’t fly,” and the phrase “flightless birds” came up. I loved those words. I think I get a lot of ideas just from a phrase.

How do you specifically encourage your students to cross genre lines?

In a beginning sculpture class, I think it’s important to just focus on technique. However, when you get to my upper-level classes, I encourage my students to not limit themselves to genre.

I gave my students an assignment the other day where I gave them matchboxes and asked them to solve the problem of how do you travel from the grandiose to the minute and reveal an interesting using a matchbox. I’m trying to get them to use their brain and conceptualize.

When you get to Sculpture II, you’re on your own. We throw grades out the window. They’re doing all kinds of art; they’re embroidering,  weaving, using found objects, making video, etc.

How boring would it be if I had 12 amazing students and I made them all do carved salt-blocks.

You can get technique all your life. Now is the time to learn how to tap into your thought process

I’m a firm believer that students need to learn how to set up problems for themselves. In fine art, we also have graphic design and advertising. In my mind, they’re wonderful mediums but a career in that means a client comes to you with a problem to solve. In fine art, you make the problem.

Sculpture is a cross-genre; I don’t care what you use, as long as you’re creative. If you English majors are in language, we’re in visual language. It’s all about the making. It’s never personal, it’s all about the making.

We’re also getting online now. My students are blogging and posting their pieces, and we’re running away with it. It’s another addition to the studio.

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