Interview with Carrie Scanga, by Jennifer Palmer

Published: Vol. I, Issue II
Date of Interview: March 4th, 2016

Current place of residence?

Portland, Maine.

Did you always see yourself as an artist?

When I was in high school I had the opportunity to take a summer workshop for young artists at Moore College of Art in Philadelphia. This expanded my understanding of art as a vocation and profession.

I noticed you have done various residencies. Do you have a favorite, and how did these influence your work?

When I look at the work I’ve done over the years I immediately associate each piece or body of work with the place it was made. Often these places are residencies. My process seems to thrive in residency contexts, because they are kind of a suspended space in between worlds. They exist outside real life and yet being in them feels so real.

In 2003 I made some of my best work at The MacDowell Colony. I was pretty hermetic there during my two-month residency. I read Kathleen Norris’ book The Cloister Walk. Kathleen Norris’s portrayal of life at the Benedictine monastery, including its rituals, meanings, and the architectural surroundings somehow guided me through my hours alone in the studio there. The work I ended up making feels to me about spaces that are physically impossible. And because they are physically impossible to navigate, they can only be entered and explored through some spiritual realm.

Many times since then I’ve tried to get back to making work like that, but in my home studio and in other residency experiences I haven’t been able to achieve that distilled, potent voice I had at MacDowell. I feel fortunate to have had the experience of right time and right space colliding.

I love being nurtured by residencies, and I’m grateful that these colonies, their staff, and boards of directors hold the space for artists. As I touch on each of these experiences in my memory I’m overcome with warmth and gratitude!

Since your work has a lot to do with space, I was wondering what is your favorite space?

The forest. I love to be enclosed in the woods and to see the repetition of trees receding in the distance. The sounds of leaves rustling and also pine needles muffling my footsteps slow my brain…the feeling of all of that life and functional busy-ness around me makes me feel content and whole.

I am really drawn to the diversity in sizes of your work. From the intimate size of your paper pieces to the larger presences of your 3D work. Both are very impactful and your work suggests a strong narrative. How do you decide the scale of your work before you start a piece?

I consider how close I need to be to something in order to be enveloped in the world I’m portraying. For example, in working on a small drawing I imagine that the viewing experience will be 12" or less, so my imagery becomes miniature. If I’m working larger, I imagine that the piece might extend past a viewer’s peripheral vision. As with going to a movie or a play, I think that making and viewing the work requires me to suspend my sense of physical self and place my belief in the scene before me. Choice of scale is related to this.

And what draws you to the mediums you use in your work?

I work with paper because of its ephemeral nature and its easy expression of ordinariness. With each project I exploit new facets of paper’s rich identity. Its commonness presents ways to both connect with and surprise a range of audiences. I hope to achieve a sleight of hand in my work that enchants the viewer, and my long involvement with paper is a practice geared toward mastery of this one material.

Do you have a favorite type of paper?

I work a lot of things out by folding, pasting, printing, and cutting Borden & Riley tracing paper rolls. This is the paper that I use to think through many ideas. But my most favorite paper is strong and silky gampi tissue. Someday soon I hope to travel to Thailand or Japan to learn more about how it is made.

What role does impermanence play in your process and artwork?

I’ve always been drawn to ephemeral materials. The printed image as a mere ghost or residue of the printing process, delicate paper, human breath, graphite for drawing. These materials make me feel like I could say something about a spiritual aspect of life. If I can suspend the material and permanent, what is left inside an object or installation is just light and air. The light and air are the best materials I’ve found for describing intangible spirit.

I was drawn to your installation Breathe. What inspired you to create this interactive piece?

When I first conceived of that piece, back in 2011, I was noticing that people had a heightened awareness and excitement about our interconnectivity. Social media had taken off. My sister, Sara Scanga, is an ecologist and beekeeper, and back then we were often having conversations about emergent colonies, swarms, and ecosystems—about interconnectivity from an ecological and evolutionary viewpoint. I also was trying to find ways to use local materials in installations, to make them more specific to the community where I’d be exhibiting. I finally hit on the idea that human breath, light, and air are the perfect local materials. Delicate tissue paper seemed the perfect vessel, frame, and “canvas” to showcase these ephemeral elements.

I based its structure on photos I’d taken of the golden ceiling inside the Seville Cathedral. I like that architecture and decoration can insist upon us navigating a building’s space in a particular way. In the Seville Cathedral if I want to see the golden decorated surfaces I have to look upwards. The act of looking upwards stretches all of these muscles and tendons in the face, neck, shoulders, and chest. So I am physically changed by the space. My shoulders are unburdened, my chest opens, my cheeks pull back and my mouth is almost smiling. And that physical change in my body actually changes emotional state and spiritual awareness in that moment. I wanted to make an art installation that could facilitate that emotional state for anyone who might visit it.

Could you describe your artistic process?

I need to start with a shred of an idea. I try to settle my restless self down through meditation first, so that I can connect with the root of my deepest longings and cravings. Once I can touch on that feeling of desire, no matter how abstract its subject is, I start to imagine what might fill the desire. And then that is what drives the design of a new installation piece or the new series of images.

Usually if I can stay in touch with that abstract sensation of craving for long enough a concrete symbol will emerge. Then I’ll take up that symbol and start making some sketches and playing with materials until I feel like I’ve got something that I can’t let go. Sometimes it takes me a long time to find the idea that I can’t drop, the idea I am driven to pursue to completion. It can take me a couple of years to find an idea that I’m excited to be working on. Regardless of whether I like the idea, though, I try to work daily.

How has your practice changed over time?

Audience. When I was just starting out, I was making art purely for myself. Making something was synonymous with learning to be in the world. There have also been points when I have made art with a specific viewing audience in mind, such as when I have a commission for an installation.

What is your workspace/studio like?

It is utilitarian and somewhat feral. It’s funny, because my living space is cozy and decorated. I’ve moved studios a lot in the 15 years since grad school, and each time I move into a new space I think to myself that I should get a rug and a string of lights or mini fridge, and then the next thing I know I’m working on the floor without even stopping to build tables and unpack boxes. Some part of me needs the feeling of potential flux, the possibility that I could just pack up and walk out and never return. I think that this non-committal attitude actually helps me to be brave in the studio—I trick myself into working by telling myself it’s just temporary.

What is one item you could not work without in your studio?

Etching press. Printing gives me the ability to think indirectly. Through printing I make an impression, memory, or ghost of an idea rather than the idea itself. Working indirectly is to look at something sideways rather than facing it head-on, to operate in the margins of knowledge.

Printing is also time consuming, so it gives me the safety of a process and promise that an outcome will be slow in coming. This promise of a long journey lets me entertain more abstract thoughts.

What project or projects are you currently working on?

I am working on a new installation piece right now. I want to share with you what it’s about, but it sounds so cheesy to say right now. I’m afraid that if I say it I will scare myself off of working on it. To research for this piece, I have been walking a corridor of highway near my house that is not pedestrian-friendly, and I have been doing a lot of research about Love.

In 2000 I made a piece called warm: for those walking beside the highway and I think that I am returning to some of these ideas for my current project. But I’m coming back to them in a roundabout way. I won’t wrap buildings in painted tracing paper this time.

warm: for those walking beside the highway | Tracing paper painted with yellow brush strokes and pasted in a band around the exterior of an empty fast food drive-in restaurant in Seattle, WA. | Dimensions Variable | 2000

warm: for those walking beside the highway | Tracing paper painted with yellow brush strokes and pasted in a band around the exterior of an empty fast food drive-in restaurant in Seattle, WA. | Dimensions Variable | 2000

warm: for those walking beside the highway | Tracing paper painted with yellow brush strokes and pasted in a band around the exterior of an empty fast food drive-in restaurant in Seattle, WA. | Dimensions Variable | 2000

What advice would you give artists starting out?

I’ve come to realize that there are many art worlds. There are numerous varied ways of defining success. At times I find myself distracted from my career goals because I’ve gotten twisted up in comparing my professional path to some other artist. When this happens I remind myself that I get to chart my own path according to my own values. To do this, I return to the work. I look at my art and ask it what opportunity I pursue so that it can grow and become what it needs to be.

Do you have a favorite art exhibit, gallery, or museum?

My first art love was the Persian Miniature collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I love the softness of the walls and the light in this space. The walls seem to absorb sound, so if you are alone in there you can’t hear a thing. It is the most incredible isolated looking experience. I think this is still my favorite art exhibit/gallery I’ve ever experienced.

If there was one thing you wanted people to know about your work, what would it be?

It comes from a deep emotional place in me and my ultimate hope is for it to connect with another on a similar level.