Val Britton

I allow myself to work intuitively and place a lot of trust in the moment, the materials, and my mistakes.

When we visited Val in her Dogpatch studio we stayed much longer than usual because we couldn’t seem to stop talking. Her approachability made it easy to ask her just about anything, and no matter what the subject matter, Val shared her thoughts with candor, humor and poise. Our conversations rambled out in all directions— we discussed day jobs, treasures found in trash heaps, scientific terminology, and the recent (anxiety-inducing!) resurgence of bedbugs. And of course, we talked about her art too. Val makes oversized collaged works on paper that draw on the language of maps to tap into psychological and emotional spaces more than just the physicality of geography. At the heart of her work is the story of her father, who drove eighteen-wheelers across the country for a living and unexpectedly died when she was young. When Val first began this work she initially traced the actual routes her father had travelled, but over time her work has evolved and the routes have changed to become less recognizable, more fragmented. Now the roads her father once drove along have been transformed by memory and imagination to become abstractions of loss and longing. Val’s work struck a personal chord and had me mulling over the experience of loss and the narratives that come out of it. In my mind, total acceptance and understanding around trauma just isn’t possible, but still we try for it— and in the grasping we lean on our shaky memories and yield to our imaginations to reconstruct what happened, how it happened and why. And then we tell ourselves this story of half-truths, and retell it, and change it a bit here and there, and retell it again, over and over, and in this act we create a ritual and a new mythology to help us understand…and keep our losses close.

What mediums do you work with? How would you describe your subject matter? What themes seem to occur/reoccur in your work?
I work with drawing, painting, collage, hand-cut paper, and printmaking, mixed media on paper. My background is in printmaking and drawing. Much of my work was inspired by my longing to connect to my father, who was a long haul cross country truck driver and mechanic while I was growing up in New Jersey. His death when I was a teenager took me by surprise, and during my teenage and college years, I struggled with how to deal with my pent up grief and confusion.

Even though my work does not explicitly address this story, it had a deep impact on me in grad school, when I really began to explore how I could channel my ideas and confusion about place, the unknown, personal history, conveying an emotional experience, into an abstract work. Letting go of figurative icons and loosening up from a very rigid background in printmaking were pivotal in moving into the body of work I’ve been engaged with in the years since grad school. I have a funny relationship to painting because I don’t really think I’m a painter, I never really studied it, but formal painting concerns, such as surfaces, textures, and space are becoming more relevant to me.

I stumbled upon mapping as a kind of metaphor for what I wanted to do in my work when I drove across the country to California for grad school. I began to use an atlas as a tool to make large drawings on paper, initially tracing routes my father had travelled and eventually fragmenting and mutating them until they became unrecognizable. I was trying to insert myself into my dad’s story, and in this crude way I stumbled upon a method of working that was meditative and allowed me to explore personal issues while also dealing with formal aesthetic issues, composition, abstraction, process, and material exploration.

I realized that the use of mapping was a way to not only describe a physical space but also an emotional and psychological space, a way to sort through a geologic tangle of memories. There’s also an underlying anxiety and explosiveness in my work, a tension between order and chaos. In a way, I need to destroy and transform my materials so that I can come out on the other side with something new, but that still suggests a trace of what was.

I participated in the residency at Recology in 2010, and the experience of scavenging for materials and repurposing trash into artwork had a profound impact on my work that is still continuing to influence it. I enjoyed the process of being led by discovery; unable to anticipate what kinds of materials I might find, it was all about chance encounters. This forces you to think outside the box and utilize things in ways you never imagined. Also, I became so tuned into this idea that each item, each scrap of material has a story— it comes from somewhere, it passed through someone else’s hands, it has it’s own history. I really am drawn to the notion of found narratives, of stories already imbedded in the materials.

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
Outside of my studio work, I’ve been working as a freelance artist in various design and craft-related positions for many years. In the last few years I’ve been doing commercial work for textiles and other products for the home. I come up with concepts, appliques, and painted motifs for products that then get reproduced.

It’s definitely a balancing act between freelance work and finding enough time to do my own work in the studio. A benefit of the freelance life is having time in between projects to devote to uninterrupted studio days, going to residencies, traveling for exhibitions, etc. One of the drawbacks is that often I’m on a freelance deadline working crazy hours, and it throws the life/work balance off in a big way. Getting back in to the studio after being away can take time to reacquaint myself with what I’d been doing in the studio. I’d like to think that I’ve been juggling it long enough to be more comfortable with the hustle and the financial uncertainty inherent in freelance work but it’s a constant negotiation.

On the positive side, I’m grateful to be able to make a living doing something somewhat creative and being able to use skills related to art and design. It’s a tough economy right now and I know I’m lucky to have work. There have also been times where things I’ve been exposed to at work have serendipitously influenced my studio work in ways that I would not have expected. A while back I worked for Martha Stewart on a project where I had to learn embroidery, and after that project I began using embroidery on the paper I was using for printmaking. So, with instances like that it’s clear to me that sometimes my paid work can positively interact with and influence my art.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
I just made my first large-scale cut paper installation last fall and re-worked it for another show in Brooklyn in January, a joint project with a musician who organized performances under my piece. I want to expand those ideas for another installation this fall in San Francisco, and I’m just beginning to think about what I will do—I want it to be much more ambitious. I’m also starting a new body of two-dimensional collage work that I’m excited about and I’m exploring more found materials such as vintage paper, wood veneer, and recycled Tyvek.

When you are in need of inspiration are there particular things you read, listen to or look at to fuel your work?
While I’m working, I listen to a lot of music and podcasts like This American Life, Selected Shorts, and Fresh Air. I tend to be most productive when I immerse myself in a pile of materials, working with my hands, getting into a zone by just spending time in my studio and trying not to edit or judge what I’m doing, and see where those experiments lead me.

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’s critical to my practice to have a dedicated space. Without it I feel like I don’t have a place to think or any room to make things. When I work large, it’s impossible. I’ve always lived in small places, so it really keeps me sane to have a separate workspace not just for my things but also in which to think. I also think that having a studio sets up a contract and a commitment to a practice which is really important to making work, just being there plugging along.

How do you navigate the art world?
I try to keep at it in the studio and just keep showing up. I question myself a lot, and sometimes I feel that my doubt is motivating, because I’m never satisfied and I’m always looking forward. But doubt can be a real confidence killer, so I think it’s important to be part of a community of friends and artists to support each other and keep sane. I try to be true to myself. I try really hard not to compare myself to others or measure my accomplishments (or rather lack of) with other people, because there’s no point in doing that (this is a constant struggle). There’s so much out there that it can be overwhelming.

I’m grateful for each new opportunity and try my best. But I think it’s becoming more apparent as I get older that I need to do what feels right for me, even if other people are telling me differently. It goes back to doubt and confidence, and listening to my own voice, which can be hard to do amidst all the noise.

What risks have you taken in your work, and what has been at stake?
While in grad school a professor suggested that I try making bigger work. Because I had been making such small, compact, and complex work it was just an exercise to bring in some much needed looseness, to let things expand. When I started working much larger it opened up my mind and my work in ways I never could have imagined. I’m often afraid that my work is not very intellectual, because I allow myself to work intuitively and place a lot of trust in the moment, the materials, and my mistakes. But this goes back to listening to your own voice, and being authentic and true to making what you need to make even if it is not popular, not comparing your work to the prevailing trends. Often I feel like every piece is at stake of being ruined if I go too far and can’t take it back, but I feel like these are risks I have to take to progress in my work and discover what’s next. Letting go of preciousness has been an important lesson for me in taking risks.

A commonly held conception is that artists often make their best work during periods of personal turmoil, have you found this to be true?
Maybe. I always turn to making when I’m feeling low or out of sorts and it never fails to bring me back. I think making can be good therapy. It’s an outlet for expressing things that can’t get out or don’t make sense in other ways.

What has been your biggest disappointment and greatest joy thus far in life?
It’s hard to be disappointed when I never thought I’d be able to live as an artist. I’ve always been a bit of a misfit and I could only hope I’d get to leave the small town where I grew up and get myself through college. My greatest joy, beyond the people in my life, is getting to do what I love, both as a studio artist and a freelance artist. As hard as it can be to make a living, it’s a life of constant learning and discovery that I’m very grateful for.

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
Solo Exhibition with San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery (November 2012 – January 2013).
Two-person exhibition with Foley Gallery, New York (TBA).
Group exhibition with CES Contemporary, Laguna Beach, CA (September – October 2012).
Group exhibition around the themes of waste and reuse at The American Association for the Advancement of Science (August – November 2012).
Group exhibition at Diablo Valley College, Pleasant Hill, CA (August – September 2012).
Solo exhibition at the Addison Street Windows Gallery, Berkeley, CA (August 2012 – January 2013).

To see more of Val’s work: