Welcome to a new NYCnash feature: interviews with artists in their studios. These are long-form Q & A’s that let me pick into the brains of artists that interest me. Expect many more to come. Interviews are conducted in person and lightly edited for clarity.
I’ve known Shana Kohnstamm for several months now — since she started working in a studio at Ground Floor Gallery + Studios last year. She gave me a lesson in needle felting once and I created a baby Creature from the Black Lagoon. You really have to try it to fully appreciate how Shana works: She felts or tangles wool fibers using small barbed needles. It takes thousands of stabs just to make a golf ball sized sphere. Read on for her story.
Erica Ciccarone: I know your first love was painting. Can you talk about your transition to wool?
Shana Kohnstamm: It was a surprise. It was not intentional. I like to take workshops and find out different methods of how people do things. I took a two-day felting workshop at the Frist, and had a little wool left over that I played with it at home. I’m the type of person who will get super geeked out about a new thing and want all the toys and all of the tools. I was very cognizant of how much money I was going to spend. Wool is cheap so I bought a couple ounces of wool and a needle for $5. I played with it and it didn’t work. I had a friend come over to teach me needle felting and within five minutes of watching her, I was like “Got this. See you later.” It was really exciting. I bought a little bit more wool and a little bit more and the transition from painting to felting really took about eight months. I was doing both for a while, and I had a gallery in Knoxville show both mediums; it was my only solo show that showed both painting and sculpture. Then I really didn’t paint again for a while.
I can paint with the wool, and faster. I can lay different colored bits of wool down and visualize it before I even start doing the work. I can lay the color down and say, that needs to go over two inches and just pull it up. I got all of my painting needs fulfilled and then sculpture just excited me in a whole new way. I certainly did not expect to find a new mode of working at 40.
EC: So much of your work has an other-worldly quality, evocative of mythical sea creatures or scientific anomalies. It always makes me wonder: what were you like as a child?
SK: I was very quiet and I spent a lot of time drawing. My mom didn’t buy me coloring books. She would give me blank paper and let me go. During the time I was four or five, my brother was one and two, and he was a handful. My mother was happy I could entertain myself and be self-sufficient. If I had my crayons and paper, she didn’t need to watch me. I remember by kindergarten, I was already “the artist.” I was good with that. I wasn’t athletic, I wasn’t tall, I wasn’t especially smart; I wasn’t dumb but my label was, “She’s the artist. She knows that.” If the new kid would come into school and be able to draw, I would get upset. It was my identity. I had to prove that I was the best at it. I would learn what they could do — bubble letters or cartoon characters — and I would do it better. That was how I built my skills and identity later on.
I was showing my work to a friend recently and she said, “I feel like I have some kind of window into your brain.” I said, “These things don’t live in my brain. I don’t know what’s going to happen.” I have no clue. It’s a surprise to me. Painting was the same way. I would put color on and play this push/pull game, and it was a dialog between me and the piece. It’s the same with sculpture. I have to be a little more certain of the direction. Trying to retrofit a sculpture to fit in lights or to solder is a pain. You have to cut and modify and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I have to have some kind of direction, but a lot of times, they’re doodles or accidents.
EC: Do you think of them as living creatures?
SK: Some of them have more life than others. Sheebie Geebie is definitely other-worldly. This one, “AG Pod,” was done under the instruction of a fantastic felter named Andrea Graham. We did a web workshop. That was a transitional piece for me that took me from hobby level to professional finished level.
EC: There’s a really stunning balance between the beautiful and the bizarre. Some of your pieces like “Heliotropia” and “Quiet Rattle” produce a weird and satisfying discomfort for me. They’re a little bit sexual sometimes. Does that surprise you?
SK: It surprises me which pieces evoke that.
EC: This one totally does it.
SK: See that one I don’t get it from. That’s “Heliotropia,” the seed that carries it’s own light. My paintings are like that. Some people would just look at it and say, “Too much” and put their hands up over their face. Other people would look at the paintings and say, “I wanna fuck it.” I’ve had that especially from other artists. The paintings are juicy. They’re super slick. But these sculptures are fluffy. I guess it brings out a different sexual nature, something soft and tactile. You want to touch it but don’t know if you can.
EC: And this one? The two beings intertwined [pictured below in back row.]
SK: This is called “Homage to Tanning’s Cousins” based on Dorothea Tanning’s sketch. She was the longest lived surrealist and is my personal hero. She did some textile work in the 70s. Needle felting wasn’t around then. She did these life sized sculptures and you could tell where the armatures were and they were very clunky. I wanted to take her sketch and realize it for her as my thank you. She passed away two years ago at 102. This is my homage to her work. It’s three pounds of wool.
EC: Do you aim to use only wool or do you build on other forms?
SK: I’ve started to working with mixed media, which is exciting. I was a purist when I was a painter and I started off as a purist with the sculpture. But I like incorporating media into these. One of my dear friends is an art conservator and she used to yell at me about using crappy paint and crappy surfaces. I started using really great paints and grounds and was obsessed with their longevity. This is wool. It’s not going to last forever. It’s freed me up because I’m thinking, “Who cares? If they last a lifetime, great. If you put them in the sun they’re going to fade. They’re not going to be permanent.” I like using acrylic polymer on some of them that’s turning them into plastic, and they will last. But I never would have put all of this work together if I hadn’t given up my idea of longevity and legacy. I’m having a lot more fun. I have a hard time seeing my work as a collection because it’s only five years old. I’m not doing series; I’m doing individual pieces and each one is an experiment. I’m driven by the material; how far can I push this? That alone is an interesting dialog for me.
EC: It must be a dream to ship.
SK: I have carried an entire show in two Rubbermaid bins that I carried at the same time.
EC: You use Instagram and social media to network with other soft sculpture artists. How has that influenced your practice?
SK: It’s influenced my practice because it’s such an open community that we share techniques and suppliers. I love having that interaction. There are three or four needle felters in Nashville, maybe, that I know of. But I don’t know anyone that does it as art making. I feel like this is a continuation of a lifelong career and a change in medium. I don’t have the support here. As a painter, I could invite a dozen painters in ten minutes to come take a look and see what I’ve done. It [social networking] is encouraging in a way I did not anticipate. Being an active part of the community, I enjoy letting people into my process and sharing my knowledge. It makes you the expert when you share at that level. It’s not a giving away. If I can make better work and I can share that, and then they can make better work, it helps everybody.
EC: Tell me about the show you have planned for Ground Floor Gallery in the Fall.
SK: That is all about social networking. I created a Pinterest board of all the artists I wanted to see in person. As part of my lease agreement with Ground Floor, I get a solo show at the end of a year’s lease. I have a show at Nashville International Airport in December. The idea of doing two consecutive shows was not appealing. I asked Janet [Decker Yanez] if I could do a soft sculpture show, and she was into it.
I sent out an invitation in February to 16 artists from all over. I got back acceptance letters. I didn’t let them know who I had invited, and that’s part of it. Some are emerging and just out of grad school. Some are internationally known, award winning artists. I felt like everyone’s work was going to compliment and raise up the integrity of the show. I made sure to invite more than just felters. I opened it up to mixed-media and embroidery. It’s a sculpture show called “Touched.” People can’t help but touch this work. I have work coming in from the U.K. and the Netherlands. This is such a high-class group of artists. I want to make sure that I represent them as best as I can in this space. I’m obsessed with this show right now.
EC: You were accepted to the Arts and Business Council’s Periscope program. Can you tell me about that?
SK: They accepted 20 applicants. Sixteen of those are visual artists. It’s been fascinating to meet other folks also working in Nashville who I didn’t know already. It’s a business program that’s developed for artists. I’m learning how to think about my work as the buyer. How do you get your potential client first to know that you exist? Then, how do you get them interested? Once people see my work, they’re fans, but they have to see it first. How do you engage that person? If they desire it, how do you turn that desire into an action? I don’t have a shop. How is someone going to know how much it costs or how to buy it when I don’t have it listed for sale? I’m re-working my mental conditioning. It’s been good and challenging. I’m working from the same problems from a different angle.
EC: Where is your favorite place to see art?
SK: My favorite place to see art is at other artists’ houses. Not their work; the work they collect. I love seeing art in the home, because that’s really where we want art to go. A gallery is a temporal experience. It’s there for 30 or 90 days and it leaves. Hopefully some of the pieces go to homes. To go into an artist’s house and see the pieces they’ve chosen for their space is really exciting to see. What’s in your dining room, what’s in your bedroom, what’s in your bathroom? I have art in my bathroom. I started collecting very small art. My first piece I bought for $5. Then there’s trades and barters and a lot of stuff I bought. The kitchen is where I hang my friends. I forget what I have sold and given over the years. When I go to someone’s house and see one of my own pieces, it’s a shock. It’s delightful.
EC: Where can people see your work?
SK: Right now, they can come to the studio. I’m available if folks want to come during the week or in afternoons to see my work. I’ve been invited to participate in Nashville Collage Collective at Turnip Green in May. I got a piece accepted in Number Presents: Art of the South. This is called “Aculeus,” and it won the award of merit in Fine Contemporary Craft of the Southeastern U.S. at Art Space over the winter. With Number, Wayne White was the juror. He did the set design and puppetry for Pee Wee’s Playhouse. Look up his film Beauty is Embarrassing. You will fall in love with him. I’m waiting to hear back on a couple more juried shows. I got a random email from the Mobile Museum of Art in Alabama. They’re doing a regional exhibit at the end of the year called “Size Matters.” They wanted small art. I’ll send them a couple old paintings and a couple new small sculptures. It will be my first museum show. “Touched” is going to be here in October, and my solo Nashville Airport show will be in December.