A conversation with Ingrid Tremblay
By Eve O’Shea
EOS: You use many different materials in your work. How do you decide or come upon these?
IT: I feel like with sculpture, you can work with so many materials — and these materials have specific content. There’s a lot of processes and materials in my work. I tend to work with narratives; usually I will start just with an idea or a vision, then the material comes in. But let’s say I do a carving, for example, the material I choose will yield a very different experience. Let’s say you carve wood — the grain of the wood is shaped by the wind and sun and has this life when you’re using it. And when you carve it, it also has a lot of internal force. If you work with marble or stone, which are very old, you will have a different experience. Marble is very strong, hard, and durable. Let’s say you create a weakness in the marble and wedge it; it will make a straight break on this fragile, weak place you’re creating. I think it’s interesting in terms of sculptural experience — if I use something like marble, I will think about how durable it is, and when I work with craft or embroidery, I think about the law of transmission, in these materials which perhaps are more feminine. I worked with salt dough, which has personal memories associated with it. There’s a lot of different content that can emerge from the material, and this content can also be very related to different processes.
EOS: Does the idea for the work appear to you first, or do you see a material and decide you want to use it?
IT: I think it’s a mix, but the idea comes first, often. When I used marble, I was in a marble residency, so I kind of had to think within the “marble terms.” When I made the first piece No Regrets, I was thinking of the durability of the marble, but also of its fragility. I thought of bones, which are the most durable elements of the body, but also of rib bones, which are the most fragile bones in the body. Marble and bones are both made up of calcium. When marble is carved in this arc shape, it also becomes fragile.
I also connected this piece to the tale “La Loba” in which a woman collects bones from extinct species in the desert to resuscitate them. When I carved the second piece, Bump in the Carpet, I thought about how lights interact with marble. I made an irregular surface and carved a pattern on it, because I knew the light would hit in a specific way to create a very “light” feeling in the material.
I like Baltic Birch plywood. I use it a lot, because when you sculpt it (you laminate it and then sculpt it), it looks very topographical, so you already have a strong sense of three-dimensionality. And also it’s very wood-like, so it keeps a natural feeling within it. I made a series of sculptures called Ad Ago, which was made in tufo (volcanic stone from the Vesuvius) a material charged with content because of the history of the volcano. It’s also the first material the Romans used in their underground structures. I was thinking about how stone can carry history, and I wanted to work with that content. I wanted to keep the shape of the stone and to carve a pattern on it, so I thought of the lace. The Burano lace — at some point in history, there was only one woman, Cencia Scarpariola, who knew how to do it by hand. And then when she was 90, she showed another woman, Anna Bellorio d’Este, who opened a school to teach it. I wanted to bring the idea of the transmission of history in the stone and carved a lace pattern on it with a needle.
Sometimes my idea comes from an intuitive image – for example, I wanted to make something articulated that’s sculptural but made of hard material. I used clay that dries by air. But then I realized that I didn’t feel that the clay sculpture was resolved. So I thought, “Oh, I want to carve this in wood.” I felt that carving something out of a single piece of wood, that would look articulated like fabric was a new challenge, and with the grain of wood, it would make this grid. I felt it would be exciting, so I decided to do that. I felt like I wanted to do it, and in so doing the meaning would come out.
Sometimes it’s like a path. One thing brings me to another, and then to the final form. And once I have the final piece, I start to make more and more connections; things start to build up. I put one object in a space with another object, or sculpture, and they will start to connect. Materials can often be an aspect of the narrative, or the story behind the process, and all those things can be transformed. I feel like all my sculptures are very contained, in a way, because they have their materials, processes or stories. All of those things are held within the object, but there’s a part of it that also very often allows more connection to a bigger story.
EOS: A lot of myths or stories seem to inspire your work. How do you learn about them?
IT: Sometimes it’s just a moment that becomes frozen in my mind; a memory or a thing that just captured my attention in a specific way. I feel that sculpture is a way to expand experiences. Because it has a materiality and an affect; it can also generate its own experience. Sometimes I think about myth, and how, for example, women were erased from written history, and how the way that women could access their history or experiences has been through a tradition of proximity from one woman to another. I look into these myths and tales which can convey female experiences. Those experiences were shared through the proximity from one woman to another, so oral tradition is part of it. Sometimes it will be larger stories, and sometimes more small scale and personal stories. I don’t necessarily need to “tell” all the stories, but I like to know they are part of my thought process. At the end of the day the work is telling its own story. It has its own effect, but the stories add layers to the piece, making it richer.
EOS: How do you feel the materials that you use relate to these myths and stories?
IT: When you think about how history exists outside of written history, you can think of storytelling but also of material culture. For example, Ursula Le Guin will speak about how when history was written, prehistoric humans were spoken of as “hunters,” and now we know that this is not true. The first humans were living mostly from picking and gathering. She was saying that the story of the basket-maker has a way more important role in society than the hunter, but the hunter was emphasized because it was a more “interesting” story. She speaks about how history was written in a way in which we speak about war, domination and oppression, but how she is most fascinated by the story of the basket-maker. I think that objects and material culture can tell a story by themselves. That’s something I have in mind — if I carve stone, for example, or lace into stone, or marble, I’m using these myths that can relate to female experiences. Carving as a medium was something that was dominated by men for so long, but I want to re-appropriate those materials and those processes.
EOS: How do the myths or stories that you come across relate to your personal life? Your work is sometimes about these very faraway stories, and others are clearly about your individual experience. Perhaps that’s not a necessary distinction, but what do you think about the relationship between them?
IT: I feel like a lot of it is just about experience — these stories are just experiences that I want to work with. I work a lot with landscape, and because it’s in nature, it doesn’t operate like a system of objects; the point of view is different. The human body is not as central; nature has its own system. These are ideas that really inspire me — how our body operates within the natural world. When I was in the South of the US , the landscape was so different to me that I didn’t have a shortcut to my past experiences or to language, everything (the light, the vegetation, etc.) was new to me. My experience and perception became way more direct and sensorial. I feel that there’s also something about touch and transmission and proximity that is specific to women and so touch is also present in the works I made there – like how I carved these hands out of wood in the piece called Mixed Feelings. I first made two paintings, one made with small green marks reminiscent of the movement of the grass, and another one made out of larger green marks. Then I thought those marks looked like fingerprints so I measured the size of the marks and carved small and larger wooden hands that fit the size of the marks. Then I decided to turn the paint marks into embroidery, since embroidery is something that my mother taught me and it made sense in relation to the idea of touch and proximity.
In these ways I feel that the personal and the collective can meet — sometimes you will tell a personal story but it can reach the collective, or you can seek a collective story from a personal standpoint, which you previously didn’t have access to. In that way I feel that experiences and memories can meet. Memory is something that I relate my work to: my personal memories, and collective memories I’m interested in, as well as memory as it appears in nature. For example, a twisted grain of wood is the memory of the wind and the sun. These are all unwritten stories – how the wind marks the wood — it’s an ephemeral action with long lasting effects. I see this pattern as related to the history of women – their history was not documented, but their actions, effects and contribution to society are part of the present.