Art Writings

Artist's Talk to Troubled Teens

Cuyahoga Falls – March 2008

Artist’s Talk to Troubled Teens

SLIDE #1 – You are Ugly (far shot)
Every day he told me I was ugly – in a look, a scribbled reprimand, words, his absence. From the day of our marriage until I called it quits on February 26, 2000, he had told me I was ugly 6,943 times. On that day, I realized the truth: He is ugly. I am beautiful.

SLIDE #2 – You are Ugly (close up)
Conceptual art – art about ideas – MY ideas…or YOUR ideas…. MY life… or YOUR life. I’m a conceptual artist – most often a sculptor –and since the inspiration for my pieces comes from my life and my experiences, I feel blessed to have lived a life that’s been pretty messed up at times – you know, the usual – alcoholic father, abusive husband, strange relatives, wacky friends. As I tell my students -- embrace the dysfunction in your lives and turn it into art! And, even more, use art to connect with others

My undergraduate degree is in Photojournalism, so my artwork often starts with a story about my life. Then I challenge myself to build a sculpture around the story. For this piece – “You Are Ugly” -- I took a 25’ long roll of rice paper and using a manual typewrite, typed “You Are Ugly” one time for every day I was married to my abusive husband – or 6, 943 times. I dipped the paper in hot wax and hung it in the gallery SLIDE #3 – You are Ugly (overview)

I didn’t create this piece to get sympathy or to purge myself of the ugliness that I had experienced. Actually this piece is a declaration of independence for me – the scroll ends… I’m free! But by exposing MY pain and insecurities, I hoped to connect with – and find a kind of shared comfort in – the pain and insecurities that are common to all of us.

On the day I hung this piece, a 20-year-old student walked in and promptly burst into tears. Being an astute individual, I realized she probably wasn’t crying about MY screwed up marriage. When she finally turned to me, she said, “This is my life.” And it was then that I realized that the trauma of my 20-year-long marriage had – through my artwork – connected to the trauma in her 20-year-long life. In the big picture, MY story was insignificant, but my ART was significant because it connected very personally to this girl.

I learned a VERY IMPORTANT lesson that day: everyone connects with the world – and artwork – very personally, through THEIR eyes, THEIR experience, THEIR history, THEIR filter. WhiIe this piece began with an event that was important to me, it transcended MY ideas and connected very personally with the individual viewer. As they say, “We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are.”

Another good example of this occurred when I was in Sculpture II class. After giving my jerk husband the boot, I returned to school to study art eight years ago. I was feeling pretty insecure as the “old lady” in the class, surrounded by so many seemingly talented young people and ended up being creatively paralyzed. That was when conceptual art came to my rescue… My teacher told me to relax and simply take an idea or an experience or an opinion that I had – or that someone else had for that matter – and translate it from my brain into a piece of art – a photograph, a painting, a song, a drawing, a performance, a story, a video, or a sculpture.

Our assignment at the time was to make a sculpture that used “multiples of a form.” After I freaked out for awhile, I scanned the newspaper and some magazines and there in the headlines was the story about Dolly the sheep being cloned…. They were creating MULTIPLES of a form! DUH!!
The light bulb literally went off… I used the CONCEPT of cloning and created a laboratory where they grow babies instead of sheep. My mom had always used Grow Lights to raise her African Violets, so I decided to “grow” the babies inside light bulbs. So the first bulb in each series would be empty, the next would have a tiny egg in it and over the 9 bulbs, the embryo would grow into a baby until the last one broke and the baby was “born”.
SLIDE #4 – LIGHT BULBS (strip showing empty and growing)
Great idea, I thought… but now I had to make it. For me, the idea drives the materials I use. For this piece, I needed something clear for the light bulbs, so I used clear casting resin and I sculpted the fetuses out of Sculpy. It took me FOREVER to figure out how to do it right… the process of sculpting a “baby” and casting it in plastic took around 8 hours and I screwed up A LOT of them. But eventually figured it out .
SLIDE #5 – LIGHT BULBS (over view)
My final piece had 5 strips of 9 grow lights. As I said, the first bulb was empty and in the successive bulbs, the fetuses grew – SLIDE #6 (growing fetus) – until the bulb broke and the babies were born – SLIDE #7 (broken one??). In my final piece, 3 single fetuses and one set of twins made it full term and were “born” -- and one aborted at 5 months – SLIDE #8 (red one).

When I was finished, I proudly hung my piece, thinking that I was making some deeply moving statement about the perils of genetic engineering and cloning –SLIDE #9 (over view). I watched as people began walking through the installation, oohing and ahhing and – then -- CRYING! The range of emotion the piece evoked was amazing. By the end of the night, I had heard that my piece was pro-abortion, anti-abortion, about their abortion, their miscarriage, a friend’s miscarriage… I don’t think one person made the connection to cloning or genetic engineering.

But like You Are Ugly, people were viewing my artwork through THEIR eyes and THEIR experiences...and that’s a good thing. Because, really, if my art is only about me, then only I will be able to connect with it. So whether my sculptures are about a scientific idea, my abusive marriage, or a cultural phenomena, they only BEGIN with my thoughts on the subject. My goal is to create something that goes BEYOND me and my ideas and connects – very personally – with the experiences, thoughts, or emotions of EACH of the individual viewers. If I do this, I feel I’ve succeeded with the piece.

I think this point is important to remember when you LOOK AT art or go to artshows… don’t worry about what the artist “means” or is “trying to say”… just experience the art and let it connect – or not – with YOU… that’s where the magic happens!

I’ve brought along some of the light bulbs that you can pass around and look at as well as a couple samples from another piece called Baby Vegetables – Winners Circle at the County Fair (HAND OUT).

From that point on, I never had any problem in coming up with ideas for artwork – they’re everywhere – in my (sometimes screwed up) life, my relationships, my thoughts, my dreams, in books, magazines, movies, on TV, in conversations, in silences, in a glance from a stranger… what does it all mean? How are we alike – or different? How do we relate to one another, to our culture, to the environment? What are the common threads that hold our societies together and the differences that tear us apart? Where do we find comfort? What causes us pain? How can we grow, evolve, reach our potential? The ideas are there…. But it’s still VERY DIFFICULT to translate ideas into artwork.

The focus of a lot of my work in recent years has been on personal awareness, potential, choice, and freedom as well as the forces that try to control, manipulate, and destroy.

He took me to our empty shop. It was 1 a.m. and 7 degrees. I was wearing a dress and pantyhose. He held his shotgun to my head for 4 hours. He tried to make my frozen toes pull the trigger. I watched his hard eyes while he told me over and over again that I was ugly. I couldn’t hear his words very well, though, because the nursery rhyme played so loud in my head. “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater, had a wife but couldn’t keep her…”

SLIDE #10 – PETER (over view)
The idea for this piece -- Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater -- came from personal experience – my failed marriage to a very controlling man and my escape from that marriage. I used the well-known nursery rhyme to anchor the basic concept… “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater had a wife but couldn’t keep her; put her in a pumpkin shell and there he kept her very well.” But while the nursery rhyme has Peter entrapping and keeping his wife, I wanted my piece to be about the impossibility of keeping – or controlling – another human being without his or her consent. Therefore, it addresses the larger issues of personal choice, self worth, and the strength of the human spirit. To demonstrate these concepts, I built contradictions into each of its main elements.

I constructed the pumpkin “jail” out of solid steel bar similar to that used in actual jail cells. However, I designed the spacing of the bars so you could squeeze through them if you wanted to. I polished the bars to a creamy silver finish to make them attractive and alluring, even though they ARE bars of a cell. SLIDE #11 - Bars I placed a throne-like chair inside the jail that was modeled after an electric chair, but instead of straps to hold you in, the back of the chair is a ladder that enables you to climb out. SLIDE #12 – Chair with ladder back I upholstered the chair in bright colors – to look beautiful, plush, and inviting – but used straight pins for the upholstery with half of the pins poking dangerously outward SLIDE #13 – close up or pins. The scale of the structure was selected to mimic the feeling of a jail cell – large enough to exist in, but not be comfortable in. SLIDE #14 – Top view I wanted the piece to be simultaneously beautiful and dangerous, alluring and repellent. I wanted it to be about endings and beginnings. The statement for this piece is as follows:

“Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater is about personal worth, freedom, and the resilience and strength of the human spirit. Although some may try, it is impossible to capture, contain, control another human being without consent. Therefore, this piece speaks to the danger of allowing oneself to be imprisoned – even if the captivity is extremely luxurious and the jail is entered into with the best of intentions. A beautiful jail is a jail nonetheless. Beautiful furnishings are barbed and will cause pain if personal freedom is denied. So, Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater addresses the issue of personal choice. We are free to leave the jail – by squeezing through the bars or climbing up the ladder or simply refusing to participate. Choosing to stay in a place where freedom is sacrificed is a choice. Sometimes, it’s just very difficult to realize you are in jail.”

When people view this piece, I want them to consider THEIR relationships, THEIR situations, THEIR histories… I want viewers to think about the situations in THEIR lives that jail them in and to consider the implications of freedom denied or lost.

This piece – and the concepts behind it – led to a series of work that explores the endings and beginnings of relationships and the continuing repercussions from these relationships. For these pieces I took old crocheted afghans that people had given me and unraveled them.

SLIDE #15 - Mother-in-law #1
My first mother-in-law gave me this afghan soon after my marriage. I hated it. But because I thought it was so ugly, I used it for absolutely everything. It was stuffed in the backseat of the car for years and dragged out if we needed something to sit on, cover up or wipe up with. The kids used it for picnics, a tree house rug, a tent cover. It was the blanket for numerous dogs and cats. It was chewed up and barfed on. It outlasted my marriage, stuck with me, lived my day-to-day life, survived. When I pulled it out of the back of the closet, I was surprised that it was no longer ugly.

Mother-in-law #1 is about my relationship with my mother in law and the impact of relationships and memories. The unraveling of the afghan represents the unraveling of relationships – which happens. We choose some relationships and others are dumped on us, but in both cases, many of the relationships fall apart but the repercussions of these relationships resonate within us long after the relationships end. This piece, therefore, symbolizes the unraveling of relationships, the continuing connection to and impact from these relationships, as well as the formation of new relationships.
My life unraveled as lives are prone to do periodically. Piece by piece my carefully constructed world fell apart. The strands that held my family, my friendships, my relationships together, frayed, weakened, and snapped, one by one. I was alone, in tatters.

But, to the surprise of many, the fabric of my being remained strong. I tied the threads of myself together and began weaving a new life. It was awkward, clumsy, and imperfect, but it is me. I hold my arms open and day by day I weave a red carpet welcoming in whatever is to be.

Red Carpet is about the unraveling of one aspect of life and the formation of a new one. Although the afghan has unraveled, its arms are wide open, welcoming the new… and the debris of the unraveling is regrouping and inviting in the future with its red carpet.
Stepping Out, too, is a piece about coming undone but being able to reweave the tatters and move forward… as you can see in the beginning formation of slippers SLIDE #18—STEPPING OUT (detail)

To me, it’s important to realize that relationships are tenuous, whether we like it or not, but that each and every interaction we have resonates through some portion of humanity. Early on, I did a kinetic piece called Reverberations (SLIDE #19) in which I stretched pantyhose people using pulleys and gears and the visitors had to walk through the installation to get into the gallery. I had it set up so that if one of the pantyhose people was touched by a viewer or moved by the gears, it would bump into another one, which would bump into another, until the contact would cause the whole installation to reverberate.

In the afghan pieces, I tried to make a psychological instead of physical connection in order to illustrate our connections to each other.
SLIDE #20—Cozy
When I was seven-years-old and my little sister three, she moved into the hall closet and I moved into her crib. I filled the crib with my stuffed animals and blankets and pillows. I was safe. I pretended that we were on Noah’s Ark, but since there was just one of each kind of most animals, they paired up as they pleased. We rolled through the waves, singing and laughing. We weathered violent storms and avoided sinking until my big sister yelled at me to shut up.

This story takes me to a place where I felt both safe (in the crib) and threatened (by my sister). I felt completely in control (of the crib) and totally controlled (by my sister). Therefore, this sculpture – Cozy – like the pumpkin piece serves as a metaphor for the situations faced in adulthood that are simultaneously comforting and confining and the difficulties in trying to grow beyond the confinement of these controlling forces.

I utilized a crib, a familiar object in which protection, care, and confinement play equal parts. Its scale -- which is the size a crib would be if I was two years old – creates an interior space that is not only the same proportional size that we would experienced if in a crib but also mimics the feel of a jail cell – large enough in which to exist, but not comfortably. The rigid, metal form is covered in soft yarn which sets up a conflict between the masculinity of the large, linear object and its feminine covering of soft yarn. And although the structure remains rigid, the skin on one leg is growing and pulling away from the metal skeleton, indications of potential, growth and new beginnings SLIDE #21 –Leg detail

Levels SLIDE #22 is a piece that addresses similar concepts but in an entirely different way. By wrapping (previously living) trees in yarn and installing them in the gallery, it emphasizes the double edged sword of man’s influence on nature…. It may look beautiful but it also covering and smothering the tree.

SLIDE #23 – Tree Cozy
Tree Cozy is a piece that was on display in front of Cleveland Heights City Hall for the past two years. For this piece, I covered the tree – a natural object – representing masculinity and strength – with a crocheted cozy – a handmade blanket representing femininity and comfort. SLIDE #23 – Tree Cozy On the most obvious level, it’s a piece of clothing, keeping it cozy and colorful throughout the year, enhancing the beauty of nature. On another level, though, the cozy simultaneously caresses and encases the tree. SLIDE #24-Tree Cozy So, the cozy covering the tree fluctuates between comforting blanket and suffocating cover-up. It took me about 500 hours to create this piece WITH the help of my two daughters, my mother, and a hydraulic lift truck. SLIDE #25 – Hydraulic lift
SLIDE #25--Boxed
Boxed is a piece that I did for a show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland… I just love how the critic for Scene Magazine described it: “Like Spider Man on drugs, Hummel has spun a thick, multicolored web of yarn over both the gallery’s open areas…”
SLIDE #26 – Boxed topview
What I was doing here was using yarn to create, and then confine, space -- setting up a tug-of-war between comfort and confinement. Each strand of soft yarn evokes memories of comfort and home while simultaneously tying and binding space itself. This is meant to be analogy about life. From the moment we are born, we are wrapped by the influences of family, environment, and culture. We are continually transformed by these interactions; changed by each thread of influence. But, are we freed or bound by these influences? Are we boxed in – or out?
In Boxed, I wrapped 884 sq. ft. of area in yarn…it took 138 hours and approximately 271,000 feet of yarn. Taking it down took 5 hours and I ended up with 6 garbage bags full of yarn.
SLIDE #27—Deinstallation of Boxed
SLIDE #28 – Confined Comforts
Creating and confining space really appeals to me…. By using yarn to “draw” in the air and connect existing objects, you can create or change space itself. SLIDE #29 – Constructing shot You can create rooms or walkways … dead ends or sanctuaries…. You can “paint” your created spaces with the colors of the yarn – mixing colors of yarn to create other colors – and then watch as the sunlight – or lack thereof -- transforms your creation.

In 2005, I spent a month doing a major installation at Kent State’s Stark Campus with the help of approximately 300 student and faculty volunteers. During a 4-day period, we wrapped the environment in 875,000 feet of yarn. SLIDE #30 and #31. We created two sculptures. The larger measured 375’ long by 50’ wide at points. SLIDES #32, 33 and 34. The smaller measured approximately 50’ x 30’ SLIDE #35.

You may have seen the maze Ms Moser’s class did here at Schnee last semester. Slide #36, 37

Since then, I have spent most of two years doing artwork and traveling in India. In addition to meeting many, many talented artists – photographers, painters, sculptors, weavers, videographers and ceramicists – I backpacked around a wondrous country, exploring its sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures, people and places. During my time there, I’ve done a number of projects…. I created another tree cozy Slide #42 (but instead of a hydraulic lift like I had in Cleveland, I had a couple of bamboo ladders stabilized by bricks Slide #43… I did a space wrap Slide #44 that wove together yarn from the US with metallic thread from India Slide #45, emphasizing the interactions of the two cultures.

As a result, I was invited back to India last year. Forty-three artists from around the world gathered in Bodhgaya – the place were Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree until he became Enlightened – to create site specific artwork commenting on World Peace. I created three pieces of work:

1. Buddha Bound features a tree tightly (SLIDE #46) bound by rope in the colors of the Buddhist flag. Buddhist thought supports freedom of being – thought, action, will – but through their devotion to this concept they are sacrificing some personal freedom and binding themselves together as individuals, as Buddhists, as beings in this universe. And like the rope on the tree, this philosophy not only wraps and holds them together, it also binds and constricts them. Therefore, this piece is a reminder that all influences should be carefully considered and then accepted or rejected to ensure that they add to comfort, not confinement

2. Family Photos (SLIDE #47) is a collaborative project that I completed with artists from Ireland and Australia . We feel that World Peace can only be accomplished if it begins at the personal level . (SLIDES #48, #49, #50, #51) ‘Family Photos’ celebrates the incredible and unconditional welcome visitors receive in India…families invite virtual strangers into their lives and homes including them in family-orientated rituals and celebrations. During a 5 day period, we each had our photos taken with 200 Indian families and then invited them to our show to receive their photographs as a gift from us --their newest family members…. The piece emphasizes our desire to connect and communicate with people on a very personal level.

3. The last piece – Bushwhacked – is a flipbook that’s (SLIDES #52) about the powerful influences that affect our lives and is a reminder that we need to pick and choose which “truths” are real or false. In the Hindi religion, Gods specialize… Vishnu is “The Protector” and Shiva is “The Destroyer”. Each is clearly identified as to its primary purpose. George Bush is not so easily identifiable -- a protector to some, the destroyer to others, and a combination of the two to many. (Slides #53, #54, #55) In this book, I wanted to show his two sidedness as Bush morphs between the two.

After India, I spent this past summer out west in Wendover, Utah…. In the HOTTEST, most dangerous environment I’ve ever encountered. THIS is an interesting story…. I proposed a really cool project – to crochet a virus on the roof of the hangar where the Enola Gay -- the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima – was built. It got accepted and I spent a month crocheting 300 of these SHOW EXAMPLE OF VIRUS “cells” in various sizes. I figured out how I’d install them SLIDE #56—Enola Gay hangar on the hangar. I drove a couple thousand miles to Utah in my Ford Focus overflowing with “cells” only to be told that I could not use the Enola Gay hangar.

And this is where my experience with site specific sculpture kicked in. I had 300 crocheted circles and I was in the middle of the Salt Flats – an UNBELIEVABLY awesome desert made of salt – that’s surrounded by mountains. It’s 115 degrees during the day. I have 5 weeks to create something. And so the process begins…. This is how you make site specific art:

1. Check out the place you have to work with. I had a salty desert surrounded by mountains that was VERY HOT during the day and inhabited by rattlesnakes, scorpions, spiders and mountain lions.
2. Determine what materials you have to create with? I had 300 crocheted “cells”
3. Think about the ideas you are interested in that could use the materials and the place you have available. THIS part took a bit of thought. I had been sooooo excited about installing the virus on the Enola Gay hangar that it was hard to let any other thoughts into my head. HOWEVER, panic helped me step back and I realized that these crocheted viruses could do other things….such as represent a manmade element intruding upon nature. After all, here I was in the middle of pure, unadulterated nature…. If man – or woman, in this case – intrudes on it, there ARE going to be some repercussions and they are NOT all going to be positive.

SLIDE #57 Soooo I came up with the idea of creating woman-made viruses oozing out of the mountains. They would be beautiful -- colorful, interesting, intriguing -- but also dangerous – intruding on the natural landscape, covering and smothering native habitats and plants, injecting synthetic material into natural environments.

Over the following weeks, every morning, I dragged my cells up the mountains and created bacterial oozes representing (wo)man’s intrusion into the natural environment. SLIDES #58, 59, 60, 61, 62… My legs got VERY strong… my body overheated in a major way…. I’d bring gallons of water to drink AND to dump on my head when it got too hot.

After I finished installing the cells, I’d have to climb all over the mountains photographing them SLIDES #63, 64, 65, 66, 67 and THEN I’d have to climb back UP and drag all the cells back to my car. It was so HOT and I was so EXHAUSTED that I’d go back to the trailer and collapse for the rest of the day (after, of course, I downloaded the photos and danced around because I liked them sooo much!)

I did installations in the mountains and on the abandoned air force base SLIDES #68, 69, 70, 71… At some point the viruses transformed into Desert Doilies – where they attacked and surrounded objects abandoned in the desert SLIDES #72, 73, 74 making them cherished items in the middle of no where.

By the time my 5 week art residency was over, I had completely grown BEYOND my original idea and was running with the new one. And, thus, rule #4 in site specific artwork – as well as life itself...

4. ALWAYS keep your options open. Identify what resources are available to you and then utilize them the best way you can. If you have a story to tell… or a place to use… or materials available…. Analyze them, utilize them, incorporate them, mold them into your own personal story… your art!

© 2023 Carol Hummel