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A few months ago, when the early summer rains were particularly troubling and fearsome, my back parlour flooded yet again.This is a problem on many levels, but mostly because that is the portion of my home that houses both my books and my art collection. Quelle horreur! I had posted a quick snap on instagram of a few of the pieces that were being displaced while we cleaned up, and the response from friends and followers was overwhelming. Not in the way that one might expect, though. While a handful of people reached out to make sure that we were okay after the storms, most seemed interested in the sculpture featured in the photo–an exquisite avian saint, with a filigree halo of gold and a jeweled drop of blood clinging to her chest, thorns and roses clutched in her claws. And people, to be honest, I don’t blame you one bit! Art and things of beauty are paramount. Your priorities are correct. And though he hadn’t yet arrived at that time, if the tiny mandrake (pictured below) had been in peril from the mold and damp, you can bet your buttons I would have saved him, as well!
Both the martyred bird, frantically beseeching the universe, and the mini mandrake (and the dapper rabbit gentleman behind him, come to think of it) were wrought by the brilliant hands of artist and friend Carisa Swenson of Goblinfruit Studio. I have known Carisa since 2010 and it’s been a marvelous pleasure to see her work shift and grow and transform, and to tag along with all of the fascinating twists and turns where her inspirations have led her. It is especially interesting to observe these transitions reflected in her creations over the past few years, with ideas resulting in sculpts seemingly diminished in physical stature, but which are brimming with immensely powerful notions and beliefs.
Towering or tiny, there are of course, always the underpinnings of the folkloric and fantastical that serve as the very foundation of these wondrous beasts Carisa coaxes forth from clay and wire, wood and glass. Creatures which seem to have…
“…wandered quietly out of a child’s fable of forest creatures, gleaming-eyed and grinning from beneath be-fanged overbites. Yet for all their grimacing, there is no sense of malice, no reason to fear this peculiar lot; look closer and you will find something profoundly endearing, familiar, and gentle about this oddball cast of creatures. Though they are semi-feral fairytale beasties from a dark wood, one gets the feeling from their earnest, even kindly expressions that they, just like anyone, are yearning for a happily ever after.”
I wrote the above passage about Carisa’ work seven years ago, and considering how much can change in that time, (and that we are no doubt both different people now–as I suspect that most of you are, too!) I thought that now, autumn of 2018, might be a perfect opportunity to catch up with this phenomenal artist to discuss this evolution in her current work and what she’s been up to lately. See our discussion below, wherein we ponder the elusive muse, discuss overcoming artistic burnout, and reflect upon the importance of both immersing oneself in a bleak, beautiful, and thoroughly indifferent landscape, and emerging forth to surround oneself with a supportive, loving community.
Haute Macabre: Puffin pegs and pocket pigeons and mandrake minis, oh my! Tell us all about the small worlds of tiny cuties you’ve been creating lately.
Well, there are two reasons for my interest in creating small pieces. First, for the past year or so I’ve been experiencing artistic burnout, if you want to call it that. Sculpting, painting, or drawing for sustained periods of time has been eluding me as of late and it seems easy to find reasons not to sit down and create. That being said, when my muse does visit me, I feel as though I have a limited amount of time, hence these wee sculptures…progress happens quickly within a short period of time and the pieces do not require weeks or months to complete.
Secondly, I’ve been mulling over the idea of art (in my case, small statuary and dolls) serving amuletic purposes. Last year I took part in Light Grey Art Lab’s Icelandic residency program, and all artists were required to give a presentation (the topic was artist’s choice). I chose to discuss how dolls throughout history have been used as more than just playthings; dolls have served as intercessors between humans and the divine; as substitutes for human sacrifice; as protectors of children from evil spirits, and even as oracles. What I discovered while researching this subject was unexpected, fascinating, and affected me deeply—and eventually spurred a desire to create small dolls that could serve as more than just eye candy. My little “personal scapegoats” are the most direct exploration of this right now. Many cultures have rites for purifying a person, or even an entire village, through the transference of “impurities” to an object or animal, which was then discarded, released, or sacrificed. Inside each of my scapegoats is a compartment that houses a scroll upon which a person can write down what they wish to rid themselves of. These scapegoats hold on to what was given to them so that their owner can make “room” for better things.
The mandrakes have been quite fun to create, and are inspired by plant medicine and lore. They give me an excuse to sculpt something a bit more playful, and their size enables them to accompany someone on adventures or perch on a shelf. The puffins were inspired by my trip to Iceland and from observing those little goofs’ antics up close. That being said, I do have plans to eventually create larger dolls, centering around birds—which were a source of interest and comfort to me as a child—and are once again providing much-needed inspiration through my involvement with a wildlife rehabilitation center in NYC.
Regarding the aforementioned artist residency in Iceland…I’d love to hear about your time there, the inspirations you brought back with you.
Yes! My residency in 2017 (through Light Grey Art Lab) ran for seven days in southern Iceland—grouped with thirteen other artists, we spent each day exploring natural wonders and sketching, then listening to presentations in the evening. It was quite intense; I’m a bit of an introvert and neither used to being around so many people constantly for so long, nor speaking in front of others! But, that was one of the reasons I chose to apply—to meet new people, learn about their processes, and explore a country I’ve never been to. The residency was an amazing experience—from how it was organized, to the artists chosen, to the sights we explored. I highly recommend the experience to any artist looking to challenge themselves.
Iceland is truly a breathtaking and wild place. While tourism has picked up the last few years, there are still so many places to wander where you feel the indifference of nature—no ropes or walkways or signs warning you against dangers. Cliffs are perilously windy, and tides can come in quickly and sweep you away. It was…refreshing. There was a sense of having to be mindful and respectful of your place in the wild (which one should always be). The connectedness of the people to the island also made a lasting impression. From Icelandic folk tales and folk songs (many which feature the beauty of the landscape and its hazards—both natural and supernatural), to traditional clothing worn during the 16th and 17th centuries, living and working in an unforgiving climate while respecting the beauty and power of the land was apparent.
During my time in Iceland, I was able to visit the Skogar Museum, which contains a large collection of artifacts showcasing textiles, crafts, and tools. I was struck by the resourcefulness of the Icelanders (making stools out of vertebrae from whales who had beached themselves) and time spent decorating the most utilitarian of objects (such as embroidered insoles which preserved the life of their fish-skin shoes). This idea of making mundane items beautiful amidst often bleak and harsh environs continues to haunt me.
You’ve created a side boutique, Wormwood & Rue, wherein you sell original art in the form of nature-inspired pins. Can you share how this came about and your goals with the endeavor?
The idea of making functional art as well as wanting to have another creative avenue other than sculpting pushed me to start designing pins. I appreciate the challenge of creating designs within specific dimensions (in this case, under two inches) that are interesting enough to catch the eye when worn. Once again, these designs allow me to create something within a short period of time, challenge my illustration and graphic design skills, and bring a bit of joy into people’s lives. Eventually, I would like to introduce other types of jewelry into the Wormwood & Rue line, such as cufflinks and necklaces, while exploring botanical and mythological imagery.
Oftentimes I see photos of you on instagram hanging out with some of my other favorite artists, which always just tickles me–all my beloved creatives spending time together! How important to you is it to surround yourself, immerse yourself in an artistic community?
It is so easy to get stuck inside your own head and creative bubble—so it is absolutely necessary for me, personally, to get together with others who are also creatives—not only do they provide inspiration, they understand the highs and lows of the creative process. I have been fortunate enough to establish friendships with artists who are multi-faceted—creative, kind, generous, uplifting, and inspiring, all with a wide variety of interests and stories. (The photo above features Cory Benhatzel, left, and Carisa Swenson, right. Used with permission.)
Tell me all about the things that are currently nourishing your soul and inspiring your work during this artistic shift?
Right now, in anticipation of the cooler and darker months I’ve been treating my ears to a few podcasts like Creepy (showcasing the best of creepypastas), Nightmare Magazine (horror/fantasy stories encompassing a wide range of subject matters and voices) and Bad Books for Bad People (intelligent and witty discussions of books that are just plain bad, and those that are good…but of… questionable material). The All the President’s Lawyers podcast has been keeping me sane as it is helpful for explaining what is going on with the various legal issues involving the three-ring circus that is Trump’s presidency. The movie Tale of Tales, based on the tales of 17th-century writer Giambattista Basile, is a treat for the eyes with its lush costumes and gorgeous scenery. I’d like to recommend Oxenfree to those who enjoy choice-based games. An indie endeavor, this game revolves around a group of teenagers who go to an island for an end-of-summer adventure and inadvertently awaken malicious poltergeists trapped within a cave (through the use of a hand-held radio). The graphics are simple, yet beautiful, as is the music. Relationships between friends and family are deeply explored, as is regret. As far as music goes, Mer De Rev’s Void Vision and How to Disappear Completely III, Ghost’s Prequelle, Fall the Night by Flowers for Bodysnatchers, and various ambient albums produced by Synphaera Records have been on heavy rotation while I work.
Where can we find your current and upcoming work?
I’ll be vending alongside Tenebrous Kate at Harismus Cemetery for the Jersey City Oddities Market on October 13th— the event’s admission goes to help out the cemetery goats, who keep the grounds tidy! After that, I’ll be working on some pieces for a December show at Cactus Gallery and Modern Eden Gallery. In order to stay up-to-date with my sculptural doings, it’s best to follow me on IG at goblinfruitstudio, and for my pins, wormwoodandruedesigns.