Thursday Spotlight: Carolyn Marsden

Tell us about your background.
I grew up in the suburbs of Boston, MA, in the same town as the DeCordova museum.  My parents took me to the museum often, and were wonderful about encouraging my artmaking, sending me to their after-school and summer art classes. I attended the local high school, then Dartmouth College, after which I worked for Boston magazine as a layout designer. In 2008 I left the publishing world to pursue my MFA in Photography from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. In 2011, I got my MFA and moved to Rhode Island, where I continue to make art and work at a local publication, Rhode Island Monthly.
Name some people, artists, artistic genres, etc. that have been influential in your work.
I’m lucky to have studied with many amazing teachers. I worked with Dudty Fletcher at deCordova as a kid, and she taught me basic color theory as well as how to observe (we worked on drawing and painting from observation, but I think the general attention to observation went beyond that). I worked with Ann Walker in high school. Brian D. Miller at Dartmouth was incredible, asking me to work conceptually for the first time in my life, as well as pushing me to be conscious of the cultural references in my work. Patrick Manning and Adrienne Salinger at UNM are the most incredible artists and teachers, as well as great friends.
Themes of time, feminism, extreme attention to detail, and alternative photography process tend to jump out at me when I look at art. I am especially attracted to artists that make their work without limiting themselves to one medium. Also, I grew up in a house designed by a student of Walter Gropius, and have always thought that aesthetic influenced my work in some unconscious ways.
The contemporary sculptures at the deCordova were very inspiring to me as I grew up. I specifically remember Mark di Suvero’s Sunflowers for Vincent, though I always called it the Trojan horse. Other artists and pieces that have inspired me include Arno Rafael Minkkinen for his simplicity and long-term dedication, Cai Guo Qiang’s show at Mass MoCa 2005, Sol LeWitt for weaning me on conceptual art, Orozco’s “Cat in the Jungle” photograph, Robert Rauschenberg, Arthur Ganson, Sally Mann (particularly while I was in college), Atta Kim, all of Sophie Calle’s works for looking at boundaries, Orlan for similar, Hiroshi Sugimoto (isn’t it nice to have someone so solid around), Gary Schneider’s faces, Thomas Kellner, Nicholas Nixon’s “Brown Sisters” series, Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey for pushing the boundaries of the photographic medium, Yoko Ono’s, Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s, and Marina Abramovic’s performances, Candice Breitz’s video work, and Yayoi Kusama for everything. This past weekend, I went to see Rineke Dijkstra’s show at the Guggenheim; I have always loved her photographs and videos. Her video “Annemiek” especially moved me years ago and it had the same effect this weekend.
Where and how do you get your ideas?
Often I get ideas from trying to improve previous work, but I also try to get into situations where my mind can relax and wander. My most recent big idea for a project came while I was taking a long drive. When I’m blocked, I think about the things (and sometimes people) that make me very angry. It sounds antithetical to most practices, but I also watch a lot of TV — and listen to BBC news to get ideas, because my work lately has explored the disconnection between my own experience and social norms. I watch TV and listen to the media to realize ways that social norms are defined, and then think about how my personal experience diverges.
It’s more common for me to think of a subject that I need to make art around, than for me to make work that starts with a medium or aesthetic that I am trying to explore.
What materials do you work with? Describe your technical processes.
This really varies. I am generally drawn to processes with defined steps and rules, and moments of great tedium. I have made projects where I weave photographs together; this involves making two photographic prints, then slicing them and spending hours weaving them back together. Other, more recent work has involved hand sewing, or hours of work in Adobe Illustrator to make infinitely resizable graphs about pop culture. I have also redrawn photographic pixels in a grid on paper or in embroidery form.
When I work with a camera, I either work digitally with a Canon camera (and sometimes use photo-stitching techniques in Adobe Photoshop), or I use a Yashica-Mat medium format. I prefer the result and the feeling of shooting the Yashica, but the cost is prohibitive. There is always another camera to salivate over…
What do you find to be the most challenging part of being creative? What is the best part of being creative?
Being creative is difficult because it’s hard to have artist’s block. It can also be really hard to explain your work, although the explaining often helps the artist understand what s/he is doing. Being creative can also be difficult to turn off in a situation where straightforwardness or rationality is needed. Also, sometimes introducing creative and new ideas irritates other people.
The best part of being creative is sharing your work, whether it is well or badly received.
What advice would you give to someone seeking advice about being an artist?
I think the best advice would be to make art and make artistic friends. If you have a project to do, don’t procrastinate on it — for me scheduling time to make art has worked well, but it depends on what works for you. Take classes in a medium if you are able, and share your work in whatever form it takes. Enter juried shows, especially the free ones. Become familiar with the museums near you, and travel whenever you can.
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