A Conversation with Cover Artist Pattie Lee Becker —
OL: Let’s start by talking about “What I Thought Was Once Mine Is Now Ours.” I was struck, first, by how much of a different experience is conveyed by the drawing as opposed to the sculpture. I had a chance to see it at The Rocky Mountain School of Art and Design when it was on exhibit in their very small space and I was quite arrested by these discontinuities. How do grass blades in the drawing become insect legs or the reaching spicules of a sea urchin. Your goal was obviously not to replicate the drawing but to make two variations on a theme. Could you talk about the project a little and touch on the differences — to your mind — between the drawing and the picture, and on the process of one becoming and conversing with the other?
Pattie: In the Spring of last year I was invited by Gallery Director Cortney Stell to exhibit at RMCAD’s Rude Gallery. At that time I was struck by the large quantity of tornadoes that were ripping through the US as far east as Massachusetts. It was unprecedented and being from Kansas, I felt somehow that something of mine was being lost. I knew that I wanted to do a series of sculptures and drawings that investigated tornadoes, and “What I Thought Was Once Mine Is Now Ours” is that exploration. The title responds to my personal sense of perceived loss and also to the emotional and physical collision of the families directly affected by a tornado’s path.
As for my relationship between drawing and sculpture, one doesn’t really exist without the other. My art either begins as an idea or is generated from some small seemingly insignificant image from a sketch page. Usually the sculpture emanates from the drawings, takes its color, texture form and movement from them. I’m not interested in realism and direct translation, so those discontinuities that you mention are really glorious to me. The sculptures to the drawings are almost like a retelling of a dream to an actual dream. In both cases, there is a richness in each, a truth based on another truth. And I suppose this is very important to me, that one doesn’t seem like a regurgitation of the other, that they both retain their honesty. Honesty and belief in work are paramount.
OL: Confronting the sculpture, I found myself surprised that something so soft could also be so frightening. What made you want to work with soft material like felt for such an imposing piece? And did you design the piece based on the gallery space, or did the space simply make a good fit for a piece you’d already conceived?
Pattie: I’m happy to hear that you found the piece both comforting and frightening. A lot of my work walks this line, and it’s an observation that I hear from lots of people. Haunting and playful. I’m not exactly sure where this comes from, but I do have a darkness within that feels well balanced with the light. I’m content that my artworks express this dichotomy. I was once told that I was a combination of Lucille Ball and Katherine Hepburn, an extremely graceful clumsy person. And although I’m not well versed in astrology, I’m a Gemini, and duality and balance are a major subject for me.
“What I Thought Was Once Mine Is Now Ours” is also formally disparate in a way with a steel armature and a soft exterior. I choose fabric because of its material qualities but also because I just adore working with it and love soft sculpture.
The piece was designed for the Rude Gallery space, but my dream would be to exhibit it in an enormously tall space. Dreaming big, I’d wish for the Guggenheim. But yes, it was built to fit floor to ceiling, to take over the space, to feel safe but also looming and ominous. I think powerful things fill you with both of these emotions.
OL: The piece and the attendant drawing both seem alive, but the drawing seems as though it’s moving underwater, flowing, while the sculptural work appears to be climbing, like a starfish, where what seems to us frozen is in fact in insidious motion. Oddly, I didn’t think of a tornado in either case. Rather, I thought of a sort of mental space that pulls disparate ideas into centrifuge. I thought of death, sucking up different pieces and disappearing them together, but I also thought of a moment of inspiration, which of course does exactly the same thing: pulling in different strands of thought to arrive at something new. You seemed to be drawing (and sculpting) the process of thought, a frozen moment in the backstage of the mind. This leave me wondering what the other reactions to this piece had to say about it?
Pattie: I really love this reading of the piece. Both the drawing and the sculpture have movement, but you’re right, they are different movements, and I can see how a tornado isn’t what comes to mind first and foremost. My work is very psychological and emotional, it builds in different directions as my mind does, yes. It pulls things in and out and pushes them around until they find a momentary resting place. They are anxious and calm, complicated and simple. Organized chaos perhaps. Which is something I love about tornadoes. That and their exceeding power. They are driven and precise, controlled somehow as they gather up and grow, constantly purging and absorbing. How have others reacted to the piece: as a painful memory, a comforting crowding, I suppose similarly to you.
OL: Likewise, a number of your pieces seem like a cross between landscapes and mental spaces — “Finger Boomerang” resembles a confused colony of fish, resembles confusion — “Rebirth to the Stars” is both organic, geometric, darling, and creepy, seeming to make a magus-like insect creature, or maybe a collection of found ideas, or a bit of kicked-up turf, into the origin of something undiscovered. Does this jibe with your own understanding of your work? And what sort of mental space were you in when you made these things?
Pattie: Most of my work derives from exploration of active drawing or of a free mind. They are mental spaces that may or may not convey an abstract narrative. “Rebirth to the Stars” is a pretty far-out piece that built itself in one sitting. The basic idea is that there is a plant planet that spins its branches around with the primary function of collecting the dead that are being attacked by missiles. The creatures are sort of like jelly beans with arms and legs. If the planet’s branches don’t reach the dead in time, a giant death blanket comes and covers them up and absorbs their soul. If the planet reaches them first, they are picked up, spun up and around into the heavens where they change their shape and become stars. In this piece I was especially interested in the simple variation in form of the creatures. Alive, their limbs are like ours, and as stars their limbs come together to create a new shape. I am very interested in form and geometry, in gatherings and landscapes, in the pairing of abstraction and narrative. I recently saw this amazing artist book of Little Red Riding Hood by Warja Lavater that is absolutely extraordinary. It breaks down the characters and location into colored dots that move from page to page. Beautiful and brilliant.
OL: You recently re-located to Denver from, unless I’m mistaken, the East Cost. What has the change been like for you and how do you think it’s affected your working?
Pattie: Yeah, I lived in New York City for a decade, and made the move to Colorado five years ago. So, I guess by now, it’s not really that recent. The move has treated me well. It’s been challenging to be away from friends and a world that in many ways I really dug, but all in all, I think I’m less anxious now which has allowed me to enjoy making work in ways I didn’t when I lived in NYC. I was so deeply entrenched in the art world there that I didn’t feel as free as I do now. That freedom and the openness of things out West contributes to my enjoyment of making art. And if I don’t enjoy it, I believe in it less. The more I believe the better the work.
Raised in the great Midwest, Pattie Lee Becker spent her childhood surrounded by prairie and open sky. After graduating from Rhode Island School of Design, she moved her studio to Brooklyn, NY, where she spent a decade before relocating to the Rocky Mountains. She holds an MFA from Columbia University’s School of the Arts and has been awarded numerous residencies and fellowships. She currently teaches art at Naropa University and the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design.