Katherine E. Nash Gallery
This edition of Practice and Interpretation features an interview between Nash Gallery Assistant Curator Teréz Iacovino and artist Areca Roe. A recurrent theme in Areca's work is the interface between the natural and human domains. More recently her work explores constructed images inspired by prompts from a well-known stock photo website. While sheltering-in-place with family, Areca reflects on photography, parenthood, and how she turns limitations into opportunities for creative growth.
Teréz Iacovino: Your photography practice often involves building in-person relationships with your subjects, be it a person, animal, or tree. How has the necessity to shelter-in-place and social distance affected your on-going projects?
Areca Roe: Yes, I love to dive into one topic for a while, create a series of images, and hopefully build relationships and knowledge in the process. I’ve had to rethink several projects with the pandemic. I had hoped to continue Laboratory (2019-Ongoing), a portrait series of researchers in the ecology field, but that’s proving difficult right now. I was also hoping to travel for that project—pretty much a no-go at this point. But I’ve really valued all the time at home—it’s forced me to reimagine how I can create visuals and play with concepts having to do with home. Still lifes and self-portraits have not always been my favorite subjects to photograph, but I’m using these constructs and learning to keep it interesting, and surprising for myself. Accidents and lack of exact control is part of why I love photography. I sometimes enlist my kids into the projects to help add elements of chaos.
TI: Throughout the pandemic, you’ve created a weekly challenge to post one new work inspired by prompts from a well-known stock photo website. Your very first post was inspired by the brief: “No place like home: Customers will be searching for images of rooms that stand out from the norm, or are uniquely customized.” You describe this work as a response to that “overwhelming domestic intensity.” As an artist and parent working from home, can you expand on that phrase?
AR: It can be a bit suffocating to be homebound, to have the mess of toys, dirty dishes, and laundry staring at you all day. It’s a trivial problem, really, but I get the sense that others have felt this pressure during the stay-at-home order as well. Being a parent of young kids during this time is definitely a challenge (and a blessing—I don’t get lonely). I was teaching online full-time while my partner and I tried to homeschool the kids and keep them entertained, with mixed results. Tidying up was not a priority most days. Overwhelming was one word for it. Normally we can escape our narrow view of our homes to go to work or even a coffee shop or library to collect our thoughts, to change our outlook. But we lack that option right now. So the floral patterns overwhelming the subject in the photo felt appropriate to recreate this domestic intensity. It also made me laugh to think about a character that might customize their home in this way…it almost could be real however, as I’ve experienced some intense floral décor in real homes.
TI: By putting a set of strict parameters around your current practice, do you feel like it has given you more freedom in how you approach image making?
AR: Definitely! Having parameters or rules helps me focus my thoughts and energy, and makes it more possible to move forward and actually make work. When everything is possible I get a deer-in-headlights immobilized feeling (I see this in my art students as well when an assignment is too open-ended). Setting those rules is part of the difficult creative work. We are all limited even outside of a pandemic event, by space, money, time, duties, etc. Continuing to produce work inside all these limits can lead to inventive and wonderful results.
TI: Can you talk more about how you’ve collaborated with your family in your current body work?
AR: Well, we’re always around each other at home, so I feel like it’s almost inevitable that I enlist them into the portraits. Plus my model pool is limited since we’re trying to do social distancing! Involving them makes conceptual sense for some of my work, at least the pieces that are about motherhood or children’s experiences of the world. My current project inspired by stock photography has a variety of approaches, and I’ve used them as models (as well as photo-takers, letting them press the shutter button of the camera) in a few of the shoots. One was about home haircuts, and another about working remotely with children around. They are usually quite on board, eager to participate in the project—I wouldn’t use them otherwise. Though they don’t take specific direction that well however—they’re both goofballs so it’s incredibly hard to do a serious shot. That leads to some wonderful surprises however, since I don’t have total control!
TI: Artists across the globe are collectively experiencing cancellations or postponements of opportunities. Your May exhibition, For Terrestrial Transect, was postponed at Rosalux Gallery. You had planned to show a series of lenticular 3D photographs featuring figures and floral backgrounds juxtaposed with native trees of Minnesota. You often use textiles as a tool for merging the natural and domestic world. Can you talk more about your fascination with lenticular photography and the importance of textiles in your work?
AR: I’ve been a little obsessed with 3D photography for years—I used a 1950s-era Stereo Realist camera to create Viewmaster-like images for some previous projects, so the lenticular prints are just a new extension of playing with 3D imagery. It appeals to me for many reasons—the history of 3D photography, the frozen-time effect, and the uncanniness of the images. The lenticular prints are odd because we most often encounter this technique in advertising and playful trinkets like bookmarks and magnets. So to me, the images also refer to these modes of communication. I was also aiming to create something photographic that could not be replicable easily online, that viewers would have to experience in person. There’s so much photography online that we quickly swipe past (I’m totally guilty of this as well), so I was interested in placing photos outside of the digital realm. The best laid plans… of course, the coronavirus hit, and all art viewing went online! Hoping to show the work someday.
For a previous project, called Housebroken, I photographed odd pets in people’s houses, and the domestic textiles and objects in the backgrounds ended up clashing with or enhancing the animals. This tension became fascinating to me. Nature motifs are so common in textiles, and I think it’s one way we attempt to recreate a tame and safe wilderness inside our homes. So to me, it represents our yearning for connections with nature. I used the floral fabric swaths in the lenticular images as a foil to the actual trees. I chose trees native to Minnesota such as Red Oak, Tamarack, and Sumac, and was thinking about how these trees’ habitats will be shifting as the climate changes over the next few decades/centuries. Tamaracks and other boreal trees will no longer be able to thrive in Minnesota (though red oaks likely will expand their range here). In my mind, the fabric textiles also represent our human influence on these trees. The figure (myself, since it was most convenient, also refers to my love of these trees) interacting with the trees also gets at this idea of being connected and intertwined with the natural world. In this case I needed a controlled studio setting to do the lenticular process, so the trees came into the studio. With other recent projects where I utilize textiles in the landscape, like Laboratory, I brought the fabric outside as a domestic element. It’s interesting how small and strange the textiles tend to look in the broad landscape.
TI: As you continue to create work at home and prepare to teach in the coming fall, what advice do you have for students and emerging artists grappling with how to reimagine their creative practice during this time?
AR: Keep working! Even if your options are suddenly limited, and you don’t have the equipment you usually use, you can work with whatever materials make sense and just keep learning, growing, and maintaining that forward momentum. Artists are adaptive and flexible, and sensitive to the surroundings, that’s part of our strength. This moment, regarding both the pandemic and the fight for social justice, is important to respond to and to document. And art is one vital and visceral way to respond.