Angela Hennessy

Artist, Oakland // July 2012
Mostly I just try to challenge myself— which means asking questions and not knowing all the answers.

A recurring topic of conversation during our visits with artists, no matter what medium they work in, is the material aspect of art making. The hands-on confrontation and negotiation of the inherent qualities and variables of any given material— whether it’s clay, paint, fabric, paper, or wood— is at the crux of their work. Over time and through blunders and discoveries, each artist has developed different techniques to bring about the results they are after— but it’s an imperfect process and everyone we’ve visited has emphasized this fact.

Angela uses a variety of materials, often choosing them for specific physical features like color, density, and porosity to signify the subject matter her work often grapples with— constructions of race and gender, mortality, sexuality, and bodily existence. Currently she’s working on a series of text fragments embossed on copper that she’s altered with dark, antique-looking patinas. While we were at her Oakland home studio (a gorgeous, light-filled front room accented with her Gothic/Victorian sensibility) she took us into her kitchen to prepare a liver of sulfur bath and demonstrate how she gets her patinas just right. Or…not exactly. Though Angela is formally trained in metalsmithing and has done these sulfur baths countless times, she can’t quite predict how the copper and solution will interact and what the result will be. The one she did that day came out with pink undertones that Angela isn’t a fan of. But she shrugged it off with easy acceptance and we carried on talking about a range of topics that included motherhood, the myth of Medusa, the slippery slopes of memory, and what a great little artist her young son already is.

Angela doesn’t just negotiate with the physical characteristics of her materials, she also looks to find and bring forth their narrative significance— Each material brings its own cultural biography, she says. As part of her process, Angela draws “mind-maps” of her materials and projects— and as she does research, jotting down key words and notes, correlations and intersections become apparent, connections are made and a more layered and extensive story is revealed.

What mediums do you work with? How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
I work with soap, thread, wool, velvet, mirror, fuzz, dust, metal… My materials represent this constellation of thoughts on purity and contamination, memory and mourning, and domestication of the body and of the spirit. I’m always thinking about black and white things too.

Each material brings its own cultural biography or a specific metaphor I am interested in. Sometimes I choose materials based on how they interact with light or how they respond to gravity. When I started unraveling velvet I was thinking about the ways in which materials reference psychological spaces— the state of unraveling, and how we never really let ourselves be undone.

Do you see your work as autobiographical at all?
Yes, definitely. My ideas usually begin with something from my life. I am often negotiating experiences of my body through my materials but I’m not particularly interested in revealing the details. In the end, the personal narrative is sort of an invisible layer in a larger mythology.

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
I am an Adjunct Professor at California College of the Arts. Teaching for me is more about asking questions than providing answers. I don’t always know if I am asking the right questions. Each student has different needs. It’s often about being attentive to energy and managing the vibes.

When I was a student at CCA, I studied with many amazing teachers, artists, and writers. They gave so much and their gifts made all the difference for me. In some ways that kind of generosity can only be acknowledged by continuing the work. I have even more appreciation now because I understand what it requires to be present like that.

You will be teaching a class this coming spring on women and their creative practices. What particular issues and ideas will be explored?
This is a new class called “F-words.” We’ll be looking at the legacy of feminist art and the biases and assumptions about work made by women. There was so much important work happening in the 60’s and 70’s that questioned gendered space and repositioned marginalized bodies. They embraced materiality and sensory experience in radical and unruly ways. We benefit from the risks that those artists took and often we don’t even know it. My intention is to bring that historyforward and ultimately, to have a conversation about current concerns and what’s next.

Who has taught you the most about being a woman? About being an artist?
I’ve been in a women’s group for 25 years. My mother is the oldest and for a long time I was the youngest. We are called the Circle Sisters. It’s not so much that they taught me about being a woman but they provided a space for me to figure it out for myself. We hold the mirror up for each other because sometimes you can’t see yourself— the good, bad, the ugly, and the beautiful!

Becoming a mother has also taught me a lot about being woman. When my son was about four years old he asked me if I was going to grow a penis!

Do you intend your work to challenge the viewer?
Mostly I just try to challenge myself— which means asking questions and not knowing all the answers.

When you are in need of inspiration are there particular things you read, listen to or look at to fuel your work?
I love to listen to Maria Callas. There’s nothing like an operatic drama to set the stage.
I usually have several stacks of books that represent my current interests.

I also do a lot of mapping exercises. They’re like location services on a phone, sort of like Google Maps or GPS— When I’m trying to figure something out I make handwritten maps of ideas, materials, metaphors, processes and associations to see how and where things connect. It’s a way to track all my research and see the relationships between things from aerial perspective.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
Investigation of language has always been a part of my practice in terms of research but now it seems to be coming into the work in a more visible way. I’m working on a series of text fragments called Double Negatives and False Positives. The whole thing is making me slightly uncomfortable actually but I think that is a good sign. I have been revisiting Judy Chicago‘s flower paintings and thinking about her ideas on reclaiming the word ‘cunt’. I’m interested in how sexually explicit derogatory language is used to insult another person and the process of turning a negative into a positive— if that’s really possible.

Do you see your work as relating to any current movement or direction in visual art or culture? Which other artists might your work be in conversation with?
There’s still a lot of attention on subjectivity and cultural identity and if we are post black yet. I’m certainly in those conversations but I often feel a little out of step with current movements. Some of my new text-based work is responding to the political conversation about women’s health and sexual violence and specifically the word “slut.” I’ve been really fascinated by the Slut Walk marches that protest how rape is sometimes explained or excused by the way a woman dresses. Some say it’s an extreme response but rape is extreme. The fact that we are still having this conversation is stunning.

What do you think is the function of art in society? Do art or artists have a responsibility to do anything in particular?
I think the responsibility is to make your own work, to make the work that you need to make, right now. That could be political commentary, personal narrative, making more beauty for the world… whatever it is, it can’t be forced.

How do you navigate the art world?
I see as much work as I can. I make as much work as I can. I focus on work that moves me. The art world is such a small part of the whole thing.

I’ve been lucky to have opportunities come my way by word of mouth. I am reinventing my work right now and that takes time. I’ve made the mistake of showing things too soon before.

Do you have a motto?
Don’t ignore the signs.

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
I have work in a group show called The Mysterious Content of Softness travelling from the Bellevue Arts Museum to Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College in Florida.

To see more of Angela’s work: