Prior to visiting Julia at her studio, we went to her home on the far side of Bernal Hill to check in with her as she harvested beets from her backyard, that she had grown from seed, for her papyrus making project. Then on a different day we went to her studio, which is in the now very familiar converted garage in the Mission that we’ve also visited Chris Duncan and Imin Yeh in. Obviously, it’s a pretty big space with a lot of different artists working out of it. The garage is an unglamorous place, but the fact is that a great deal of creative expression, development, and productivity occurs within its humble walls. Julia has managed to make her limited space work for her, often shifting items around on an as-need basis, and organizing everything to be within arm’s reach. She worked as we chatted, periodically checking on the foil wrapped beets in her toaster oven and prepping an area to slice them once they finished cooking. Like a blast of buckshot, Julia’s thoughts fired out in multiple directions and at times it was difficult to decipher exactly what she was trying to get at. But there was also something refreshing about her way of moving through conversations— the dispersing, meandering ideas were propelled forward by exploratory intention, and not just by the need to drive a specific point home. So, though it wasn’t always easy keeping up with Julia, it was remarkable to engage in conversation that was more about mulling over ideas, than arriving at clear-cut conclusions. One idea in particular that kept circling back into our talks was mortality and its very real presence in Julia’s personal and creative life. Her choice of materials in her art, her affinity for things that are fragile, short-lived, and scarce reveals a distinct intimacy with an uncomfortable subject matter— death and the certainty of it. Julia’s story of personal loss, her understanding of what death and dying mean, is in a way a point of entry into her work. And that’s a very brave place to start from.
When people ask you what you “do”, how do you answer?
I make art.
Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
I work part-time at a grocery store. When I’m not at work, I teach papermaking related workshops and I always say yes to visiting artist opportunities whenever I can. I believe in the personal and social benefit of art education, and I imagine that teaching will always be a part of my life.
What mediums do you work with? How would you describe your subject matter? What themes seem to occur/reoccur in your work?
Currently, I’m making papyrus out of beets. This work originates from my investigation into the materials used before the widespread availability of paper, known as pre-paper technologies. Using this particular vegetable and its incredible staining powers, I’m exploring the different steps in the papyrus making process. The result is a thin, transparent, skin-like, intensely colored material. There’s something simple and satisfying about repositioning a material and letting light come through something that grows underground. The overall project has many parts, including: workshops, sound collaborations with Scott Cazan, wooden books, stained fabric pages, and pieces of beet papyrus.
I’m also making sculptural paper pieces. The search to make paper widely available is linked to material scarcity, and the desire for documentation is connected to mortality. Compared to oral history, the written word was presumed to have more permanence. As a result, written communication used to be a more precious act. Today, in an age of seemingly infinite options for communication, I want the written word to be more significant again by experimenting with materials and texture. My decision to start making pulp out of old bed sheets comes from overlapping interests in the history of European rag papermaking and different strategies for infusing artwork with intimate and personal content. I tear old sheets up into small pieces, boil them to break down the fiber, and then I take it to Magnolia Paper in Oakland where they create pulp. I bring this pulp back to my studio, where I press the pulp it into hand-carved, wooden molds. For some of the pieces, the making begins and ends in my studio. Other projects, like “Hold on tightly. Let go lightly,” keep evolving through wheatpastings, documentation and experiments with projections.
My affinity for fragile materials comes from witnessing my father experience cancer three times over the course of 20 years. His first diagnosis was when I was 8 years old, and he was only 40. His second diagnosis was when I was 19. I was 28 when my father was diagnosed with cancer for the third time and soon after he passed away. Learning at a young age that my father was mortal greatly affected my childhood and who I’ve become in and out of the studio. There is something about plastic, marble and steel that I cannot relate to. I work with more delicate and organic materials because they have a way of confirming that life is short and we are not in total control. To some this might sound morbid, but for me an awareness of mortality is enlivening.
What are you currently reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
Reading: I always have a pile of books about papermaking by my bed, but right now I am trying to read The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker and East is a Big Bird: Navigation and Logic on Puluwat Atoll by Thomas Gladwin. I constantly find myself returning to Topophilia by Yi-Fu Tuan. Tuan mentions shifting from the contemporary horizontal glance where we are only aware of the thin layer of the planet we occupy, to the older vertical glance when humans were more in tune with the world above and below them.
Movies: I recently watched “Like Water for Chocolate” again. I love the way emotions transfer between the main character who cooks and all of the other characters who eat her food. I would like to think that art works this way too. I also routinely watch videos about geology. I particularly love watching videos of lava flow.
Places: This summer I explored underground for the first time at the Oregon Caves and Lava Beds National Monuments. My father used to sail, so growing up I was always aware of my relationship to the stars. Only recently am I starting to feel a connection below my feet. Another inspiring place is The Robert C. Williams Paper Museum at Georgia Tech, which houses Dard Hunter’s collection. In the early 1900’s Hunter revived handmade papermaking in the United States while also traveling around the world researching and documenting handmade papermaking.
What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
It means I have free reign to make a mess, because this space is dedicated exclusively to art making. I don’t have regular access to the equipment necessary for making traditional handmade paper, however this seeming limitation has actually been a positive because it has forced me out of the studio and opened new communities to me. In my experience, practical limitations often lead to creative solutions. Sometimes the direct and easy way is not as interesting or fun.
Has there been a shift or change in your life or work that has led to what you’re making now? Do you see your work as autobiographical at all?
I do see aspects of my work as being autobiographical, and often I find my “lives” in and out of the studio influence each other. Before studying abroad in Chile in college, I never envisioned my future revolving around art. After spending time with a group of muralists who started painting during the election of Salvador Allende and continued through the Pinochet dictatorship, and listening to their stories and painting a mural with them, art and art education became the major focal point in my life.
Although I loved working with the muralists, I never fell in love with paint. At some point when I finally started making my own work, I began making collages from found paper. Without any prior exposure to papermaking, as the pieces of paper got smaller there was a natural progression to completely transform the paper by using water and a kitchen blender. Eventually I set up a makeshift papermaking studio in my backyard using the blender, old window screens and a few saw horses. For a few years, I used most of the paper for printmaking. I was excited to use this homemade paper because it was thicker and embossed easily, and I liked how the pressure from the printing press came through.
When my father died four years ago, my work shifted dramatically. I was frustrated by flat memories; I wanted to focus on texture and things I could touch. I felt a strong need to push the paper to be more sculptural, and I wanted to work on exterior walls again knowing that the work wouldn’t last forever. Influenced by my experiences in Chile and the Jewish tradition, being in mourning drove me to work in public again. It was fascinating to feel the difference between paint and mass produced paper versus my thick handmade paper. Flat layers could easily be covered and disappear. When my handmade paper was covered, oftentimes I could feel it through the layers. In a time of grief, it was powerful to shift my attention from what I could see to what I could feel with my hands. Or to know that even though something was no longer totally visible, it still had a presence.
Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
Last week I harvested my first batch of Bull’s Blood beets that I grew in my own garden. This is the first time I have ever grown anything edible. I ate the greens, and then made papyrus out of the beets— everything was used, nothing was wasted. My beets were small, but satisfying. I am amazed by the range of bold colors growing underground. It feels good to try and engage with a process from beginning to end.
I am also excited about wheatpasting paper made from bed sheets in public spaces. I have been adding to the (de)Appropriation Wall on Valencia Street on and off again for almost four years, starting after my dad passed away. Every once in a while someone pulls down large sections of layers of paper from the wall. This happened the other night. Most of “Let go lightly” disappeared, but parts of an old sailboat I made three years ago was revealed. No one else would necessarily recognize it, but I did.
What are you most proud of?
I am proud of my commitment to making artwork that is equal parts hand, heart and brain.
What do you want your work to do?
I make work from a personal place, but it’s important for me that there’s space for people to bring their own stories to the work. Part of the power of art is the openness. Whatever the interpretation, I want my materials and processes to be a reminder that life is not stagnant and we do not live forever.
What advice has influenced you?
I am all about having a wise circle of elders that includes artists and non-artists alike. My mom and dad are definitely the leaders of my imaginary roundtable. My dad used to always say “You regret what you don’t do, not what you do.” Maria Porges, my thesis advisor at CCA, talked about “mindful mindlessness” in the studio.
Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
In February, I’m showing work revolving around the beet papyrus at 18 Reasons, a non-profit gallery/food/community center related to Bi-Rite in San Francisco. Also in February, I’m part of “In Other Words,” a group show examining our relationship to text, at Intersection for the Arts.
This summer I was invited to an artist residency on a farm on the Big Island, Hawaii. Scientists have been going there to do experiments with bio-mimicry and bio-informed design. I’m going to be the first artist to make work on site. I’ve never been to Hawaii, and it’s a dream of mine to see an active volcano.
At the end of the year in 2012, from October to January, I’ll be an artist in residence at the San Francisco Dump through Recology. I am looking forward to sorting through discarded piles for content and materials to make new paper sculptures and molds.
To see more of Julia’s work: