With Christine Shannon Aaron
By Nancy Natale
Christine pulling a print at the Center for Contemporary Printmaking, Norwalk, Connecticut
Forest Muse, 2012, lithograph with encaustic on patinated copper, 24 x 24 inches
A WildBeauty, 2017, lithograph on patinated copper, 24 x 24 inches
Nancy Natale: You have used images of trees and pieces of wood in much of your work. Do they have a particular meaning for you?
Christine Shannon Aaron: I’ve always responded to trees and particularly enjoy them in autumn when they are resplendent and in winter when they are calligraphic. They mark each year of their life in their rings, physical marks of their lived experience that remain hidden from view. After severe storms, where huge branches and whole trees fell, I would notice innards that had been rotted out or eaten away or damaged past the point where the limb or tree could survive. The day before, these limbs and trees looked healthy and complete. At other times I would notice thriving trees that had healed, grown over or through obstacles, and shown resiliency. The bare winter trees also call up life cycles, the periods of dormancy, of waiting, of transformation and annual renewal. To me it is analogous to human experience.
Buried, 2013, monotype, 18 x 18 inches, printed on 30 x 22 inch paper
Beyond all that I find them beautiful in and of themselves. The beautiful in art is in some circles and for some people a dirty word. It is not trusted. I do want to create beautiful art--but perhaps a beauty more complicated by being simultaneously bittersweet, unsettling, mysterious or evocative.
NN: The transition from printmaking to sculpture seems like a big move. Was this a gradual
transition for you or a leap?
CSA: A little of both I think. I started printing on more unusual substrates, such as mirror, copper, and steel and then aging those substrates as part of the evolution of the finished piece. I found I was becoming more physical with my materials and more interested in exploring what materials themselves could bring to the table. As I investigated and manipulated actual wood, I found the form shifted. In one particular critique group with Patricia Miranda, she pointed out that I was still handling the wood “on the surface” as if it were a painting. That was an aha moment to begin thinking about how the work intervened in and conversed with the surrounding space. Increasingly I am considering space and environment in my work to create a more immersive experience for the viewer.
Above: What Remains II, 2017, drilled and burned plywood 84 x 4 x 7.5 inches; Granary, 2016, drilled and burned tree slice with gampi and ink, 80 x 15 x 2 inches
Below: Detail of Granary
Below: Detail of Granary
NN: Was there one material or process that provoked the transition?
CSA: I think it was a combination of the two. I went from using trees symbolically, to using actual wood, to a shift in other materials referencing the concepts I was exploring, such as time passage, loss, memory, and the marks of human experience and connection. The processes I was using—
from aging the materials to drilling, burning, and carving—started to carry some of the content of my work and also created new areas to explore. The drilling and burning and stitching evoked other things (trauma, wounds, healing, repair) and created cast shadows that spoke to absence and presence, memory and loss. Each exploration opened up other avenues to investigate.
Fragment Series, 2017, drilled and burned plywood; from left: 60 x 22 inches, 22 x 22 inches,
82 x 22 inches
NN: How did Patricia Miranda's critique groups encourage the development of your work?
CSA: For me the critique group was essential in providing a professional and critical dialogue around the work. Not having an undergraduate or graduate degree in art, I often feel as if I am playing catch up. Critique group offers a historical framework for what is being created now, a language and process for looking at and speaking about art, and truly important feedback as to what is and what is not working within the work I present. It is important for me to understand what others are experiencing and seeing when they look at my art. Often others see themes or evocations that I am working through but am not fully aware of myself. This causes me to dig more deeply into what motivates me, the reasons I’m choosing certain materials and what it is I wish to be expressing. At times I have been conveying the opposite of what I had hoped for. It is the opportunity to take in others' experience of my work, see what resonates, and what is sparked as to possible ways forward.
What We Keep IV, 2017, burnt drawing on hand-dyed indigo paper, 10 x 8 inches
Confluence II, 2018, burnt drawing on hand-dyed indigo paper with hand stitching, 14 x 12 inches
One example is when looking at some of my monotypes, descriptors used were mysterious, hidden; one member said she could almost hear a whispering, sense of murmurings just beyond comprehension. In my mind’s eye I suddenly started picturing an audio that could accompany the work, of peoples' voices, like when you’re at the beach and just as you are tuning into a snippet of conversation, the wind shifts and you can no longer hear the rest of it. I created a multilayered audio, with voice-recorded memories where the recitations’ sound levels were raised and lowered so the listener could never hear the full memory, interspersed with sounds of wind and rain through trees. The full memories were all recorded and part of it, but not at a level where they could be accessed, much the way human memory is experienced.
NN: The processes of burning and drilling that you use often create negative spaces, or the absence of materials. Do the negative and positive spaces bear equal weight for you?
CSA: Yes! Absence and presence, the ever-present mark of experience that remains invisible but indelible. The cast shadows become part of the work. What remains, what is kept, how the whole is marked, repaired, remains intact despite the losses. Much of what I create is an attempt to make visible or tangible what is hidden and intangible.
I am also drawn to materials and processes that have an immediacy and unpredictability. I am a chronic over-thinker. Working with materials and processes that are inexact, that are variable in their results, forces me to react to what is actually happening in front of me and act as an antidote. Frequently the “mistakes” (burning that gets out of control, drilling that fractures the wood), speak better to my concepts than my preconceived ideas. Dyeing, printing, drilling, and burning are all inexact and often I “lose” much of what I began with, which naturally starts the process of reclamation and repair. In effect the things lost become as much a part of the piece as what’s retained; history haunts and inflects the work that remains.
Overwritten X Days of the Presidency, 2017-present, daily burnt pages of Grey's Anatomy textbook, 10 x 6 x 6 inches
NN: In your statement you say that your work "investigates memory, time, and the fragility of human existence." Do you think that the amount of time you invest in process assists in replicating the natural evolution of aging and decay?
CSA: What an interesting observation. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but I think yes. I think it also represents (especially as a woman) that repetitive experience of doing, redoing, making, remaking, and propping up, repairing, connecting, the forging of strengths and networks despite losses, fragility and inevitable decline. A determined resilience and piecing together of a meaningful life, through relationships and connections despite disappointments and loss. Loss shapes us more significantly than joy. I want to speak to the stubborn persistence of healing, repair and moving forward, forging ahead and finding beauty in the imperfect, the fragile, and the nature of being human.
More and more I work to have the materials I use carry some of the content in order that the work embodies rather than illustrates. The burned, rusted and stitched cloth and paper, the drilled and burned tree slices are whole and beautiful despite of or because of their fragility and fractured or pieced together nature. Wax, which has its own rich history of use for preservation, medicinal needs, and ancient art, has the capability to layer, be opaque or translucent, to obscure and reveal. It retains its own history of mark making within. Additionally, I think the hand-wrought and manipulated nature of these materials validates the imperfect, the intimate, the individual mark, in contrast to the pervasive and impersonal electronic media and mass-produced items dominating daily life. That my work is open to various interpretations beyond my intent thrills me.
Vestige V, 2015, wood, ink, mirror shards, encaustic, 15 inches in diameter
My first sculptural pieces were three-inch deep, 15-inch-wide wood slices with a rotted away center that I filled with shattered mirror. I was representing the fractured nature of memory and how each thing we learn or each angle which we look at or remember, causes the memory to shift and change. Several people at the exhibit eagerly spoke with me about the work and their perceptions of it. One insisted that it spoke to man’s destruction of the environment. Another saw it representative of cancer, the “alien” organism taking over the healthy, but that the cancer threat was “contained.” Another just enjoyed the contrasting surfaces of the organic wood and the shimmering of the multifaceted mirror shards. It is exactly what I hope for, that each viewer relates to the work and finds meaning that resonates from his/her own experience.
NN: Does your background in social work add depth to your work as an artist?
CSA: I’ve been thinking about that a lot. I hope so, yes. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that having experienced my mother’s chronic illness (she was ill from when I was 14 until her death when I was 23), I became a social worker and my younger sister became a nurse (as compared to my older brother and sister who were already out of the house and became a businessman and event planner respectively). Having lost her at such a young age, and experienced significant losses since then, it always intrigued me how others had very different experiences and thoughts or beliefs about the very things I remembered so differently. Therefore, loss, the prismatic slippery concept of memory, what marks us and how that becomes part of who we are, have all figured into my artwork.
The Memory Project, funded by a grant from Arts Westchester, installed at Mamaroneck Artists Guild, Larchmont, New York, 2017; lithographs on gampi with ink, wax, thread; dimensions variable
Below: Detail of scrolls in The Memory Project
Below: Detail of scrolls in The Memory Project
I think the training I received as a therapist, the focus on others, body language, evaluation of mood and behavior, the sorting through the layers of an experience presented, helped me hone my skills at being present, paying attention to details visually, spoken and unspoken. In addition, being part of the critique group fosters skills in really looking at work, evaluating what one is seeing, formally, conceptually, and even emotionally. I’m conscious about what I feel when I’m in front of art, what I’m looking at and what it evokes for me. I try to ask the same questions as I create my own work in terms of digging more deeply to get at what it is I want to express and put into the world.
NN: Recently you have begun writing on social media about exhibitions that you have seen and describing the work of other artists in depth. In addition to publicizing shows and artists, is this practice a personal mission to improve your awareness and critical language?
CSA: Before I decided to pursue social work, I wanted to be a writer. I did some writing in college and actually graduated with a B.S. in Education before going on to get a Master’s in Social Work. I am an avid reader and can get totally lost in the worlds created by other peoples’ words. Much the same way I can get lost in a piece of art—transported to a different place. Critique group has helped me develop a language with which to speak about art.
I think I have always had a love/hate relationship with social media. It is essential these days and yet I find it uncomfortable and self involved to be always putting myself or my work forward. So periodically I share others’ work. I tend to be drawn to material-based, intimate, or emotionally evocative work. And I usually include brief descriptions as to how I experience the work, letting followers see the work through my eyes and decide how they see and experience the work themselves.
No Safety Ne(s)t, 2018, shattered safety glass with found bird's nest, 10 x 6 x 6 inches
One thing I have enjoyed about Instagram is finding artists and work that I wish to follow. I have struck up “conversations” with some, messaged others to ask questions, and sought out work in person that happened to be in my geographic area. In that way, it has really expanded my art world. So although I think it does improve my awareness and critical language, my aim is really to share others’ art that I find inspirational, intriguing, and unique. On occasion I have thought about doing a blog showcasing art that is intimate and more material and installation based. There are many blogs I enjoy and respect that focus on geometric abstraction, color, contemporary painting and so forth, but I considered showcasing the kind of work that I thought related more to my own. I enjoyed doing the fantasy curation for Vasari 21, but the idea of doing a regular blog is intimidating, and so posting art on Instagram with brief descriptions scratches that itch for now.
Christine in her studio