Anticipating the June 2011 CIVA Biennial Conference at Biola University, artist, and adjunct faculty at Biola, Rachelle Woo Chuang, installed a pre-conference exhibit on the first floor of the university’s library. The show was organized around the theme, Matter and Spirit and included works by nearly twenty artists. Among these, the paper constructions and assemblages of Linda Ekstrom were especially impressive and so, in this special issue of SEEN Journal it is our delight to introduce you to Linda and her work. To help make this introduction, Rachelle invited Linda to respond to a few questions concerning the methods and ideas that lie behind the artist’s current work.
Rachelle: I have been an admirer of Linda’s work for quite some time having first been introduced to her pieces through Curator Jean Clad. I was attracted to Linda’s intriguing use of the book form and text in many of her pieces. There is an unspoken vitality and sense of the sublime emanating in and through her handling of materials. I would venture to say there’s an observable spiritual quality that is, perhaps, hard to define. Linda, in what sense would you consider the word “spiritual” applied to your work?
Linda: I appreciate that you acknowledge an “observable spiritual quality” to my work. Spiritual is a broad term so if I had to define a type of spiritual quality as rooted in a spiritual practice I would define my work as in the contemplative tradition. I think this comes from the formal sense of order to each of the altered Bibles, and the pared down and reductive forms some of the works take on. In my sculptural works, I also use very light and ethereal materials, like silk and paper and there is a consistent use of muted color, or no color. I think viewing the work can also be a contemplative experience on the part of the viewer. The work is quiet. It draws the viewer in close for a more intimate view or the objects and especially their detail, density of form, and tactility.
Rachelle: Can you describe your process of creating work? What aspects of working with book forms engage you conceptually or materially?
Linda: This goes back to the “observable spiritual quality.” I am consistent in my approach to the book. While I think of my work as anchored in the book, the book as a cultural and symbolic object, I only alter Bibles. The Bible is the primary book of Western culture and central to my religious tradition. So when I alter a Bible, I acknowledge that I am transforming sacred word into sacred object. Spiritual meaning is already inherent in the materiality of the book before I begin to alter its form. And, that sacred aspect is retained, transferred into the final forms. Because I am working with Bibles, I am careful to maintain a degree of reverence with the materials. I choose Bibles with high quality paper, I make careful cuts, I never discard scraps. Everything with scripture text that is not used is saved until I can use it in another work. If not, I burn it and use the ashes or scatter them on the earth.
Rachelle: One of the questions posed in the Matter and Spirit Conference was: “More than a few artists describe the creative process and their interaction with materials as ritual. Some go further to liken the experience of making and viewing to liturgy or even prayer. In what sense, if any, may creative processes and material work be likened to a spiritual discipline?”
Linda: I am an artist who believes strongly in the ritual dimension of art practice, however my studio practice does not replace my traditional religious practice. Rather, my religious practice extends into the studio. I am a ritual person. I can identify ritual components that are central to my studio practice. First, there is a strong intentionality in my work with very little sense of randomness.
When I set out to create a work, I follow a self-determined or self-disciplined set of actions. Then there is the aspect of time: each work is carried out and framed within a temporal pattern, and in each case this requires repetition and significant periods of time to complete. The symbolic aspect of the Bible is illuminated in the new way it is transformed and presented. Intentionality, order, time, repetition, and transformation are all components or patterns present in ritual structures and behavior. I can easily understand how artists experience some or all of these in their studio practices.
Rachelle: In your Artist Statement you have written, “In my process, there is ritual in the twisting, cutting, stitching, fastening and unfurling of things. There is devotion in deciphering the logics of association between the components.” Is there a personal, spiritual or devotional meaning in the actual making of the work and how would you describe this? Why is the actual physical processes of making art akin to transcendent activity?
Linda: Sometimes I may describe the practice more as if I set out to go into the studio and have a spiritual experience. However, I think it is more the case that the process itself carries me to states of spiritual experience. It is the power and mystery of the process. Yes, I make the choice to enter the studio and work in a certain way, but what happens in the studio — in the physical process of doing and making — seems beyond me. It is what lifts me to the other side of what I imagine or expect. It is transformative and it is grounding. My practice allows me a way to be in touch with my life’s purpose. Artists are fortunate in that way. When we are in the work, we can reach states of deep understanding and connectivity to a higher purpose. Where does inspiration come from? What sense do I make of this activity I am compelled to do? I believe it is a grace from God. Maybe we artists get the chance to follow up on our “out of the blue ideas” more that other people in the world. We have given our occupation the permission to do this, which is quite radical.
Rachelle: I consider your work to be truly beautiful and also well-crafted. How do you view the qualities of beauty and craftsmanship in your pieces? Do you make a conscious effort to include this pair of attributes in the making of your work? Is there a relationship of these two qualities to the spiritual realm?
Linda: Craft is important to me. I also think the idea of beauty as a physical appearance or attribute is present in my work. I admit that I have an idea about a certain physical quality that I strive to achieve. But I also think that many artists courageously explore dark and troubling themes that make us look at atrocities in the world. For me, their works are profound in that they offer pathways to redemption. I admit to a certain degree of ambiguity in the altered Bibles. I cut the Bibles apart and rearrange them so that, in the end, they can no longer operate in the traditional sense. Readability is metamorphosed into an abstract object that offers the viewer another access, a tactile one received through the senses and the body. The altered Bibles insist that interpretation must remain vital and open. As such, they serve as visual symbols that defy a singular, literal, and more fundamentalist reading. Rather, their rearranged order introduces a myriad of interpretative possibilities. For me, these altered Bibles challenge more patriarchal religious systems that have used and abused the Bible to support thoughts and actions that marginalize women and others. In this way, beauty and craft in the work operate as seduction. Seduction, used to draw-in the viewer and urge them to see beyond the surface, to think of the Bible, perhaps, in a liberated way. The spiritual realm is a dynamic and artists who explore this realm in their work must be willing to create work that challenges more conventional ways of thinking about institutions and traditions.