Studio Visit and Interview with Denise Tassin

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Denise Tassin’s Mt. Washington Studio is part wonderland, part laboratory, part playhouse, and part museum. Tassin draws, paints, collaborates, and collects obsessively. This year she is especially busy being the resident artist for Art on Purpose. Our studio visit and interview are published below.

Cara: Recently I heard this phrase, and I have no idea where it came from, but when I heard it, it reminded me of you. Quote: ‘Man is the curator, not the controller, of his soul.’ You are a meticulous collector of so many things, and then you ‘curate’ or arrange these objects into art. What are your opinions on the role of the curator vs. artist, where you see yourself in the continuum, and WHY you choose to work this way?

Denise: Artists are more and more becoming curators of theirs and others work and I think this is a good thing as it offers a greater perspective when the artist returns to making their own work. I have done both, yet find that I am more passionate and “internally” successful curating and culling my own life. I have a tendency to see something good in all art and this has often not been helpful to me when curating. This is due to my own work where everything belongs and not being able to step outside of that process.

I think viewers want to see “select” examples to support specific ideas and concepts. Sometimes the more there is to view the harder it is to understand a single idea or concept. Curating my own work supports this perception. I feel confident in saying that I’m not “externally” successful (for others) at curating my own work and that much of what I present is selfish in design. Often when I’m left to the design of an exhibition I present work that isn’t finished along side works that are. I’m looking for threads of connectivity and how the things I make fit or don’t into my world and the world at large. So, I present high and low and finished and unfinished. It’s safe to say that my exhibitions are works in progress and cross sections of my process as it exists at the time. It’s really less about curating and more about re-presenting without a set idea or concept other than a single life – here’s what it is as of today.

Cara: To the naked eye, the ‘stuff’ you collect falls into a few distinct categories: Nostalgia/Childhood, Family Artifacts, Nature, Art/Craft, and Drawing. Why do you choose these types of objects – dolls, toys, kitch, and other ‘non-art’ materials for your work? What do they mean to you?

Denise: It’s less about choosing and more about being chosen. My “work” is about recording a life through objects and ephemera. The collections have grown from evidence of select experiences to now include the everyday. This “everyday” offers me the opportunity to always exist in process. The process/work/collections are continuing to grow towards a microscopic view of a single life. The materials and collections have stories. Nothing is collected at random and I don’t use materials at random. The things I draw on are plucked from stories past and recent. Many view my studio as a repository and on the one hand it is, but for my experiences and life only. I’m more open to accepting things from people outside of my family than I once was as it expands my experiences and stories.

The objects and ephemera are used as surface, in curiosity collections or in sculpture. All of these things together create installations often disjointed, yet still reflective of a single life. The objects themselves are plucked from real life experiences either during the experience or shortly thereafter. They are objects that speak to me one way or another and often fall into the category of the mundane. I often joke that my studio is the “museum of the mostly unexceptional.” On the one had this is funny, but on the other there is an underlying seriousness of exploration that connects everything and this can be viewed as mundane. The objects and collections are physical evidence/records of particular experiences.

Cara: What is your artistic background? Where did you study art? Who has been a big influence on your work?

Denise: I’ve made stuff my whole life. I received a BA, McNeese State University, Lake Charles, LA and a MFA, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, TX. I would have to say that Robert Rauschenberg has been the biggest influence on my work. His ability to remain open to all possibility is something that I hope I too can continue to embrace.

Cara: You are the resident artist this year for Art on Purpose. What does an AOP resident artist do? What are you learning from this process?

Denise: An AonP resident artist works with AonP to create and design collaborative exchanges beneficial to all participating parties. I’m learning a lot about my expectations and limitations. Mostly I’ve learned that I have created a process from which I can’t easily exit. The things I’m learning cannot necessarily be applied to this project, but will inform future work.

Cara: As a serious artist, why do you choose to live in Baltimore? Do you ever fantasize about living in New York or some other ‘art mecca’ or market?

Denise: Baltimore is affordable and full of opportunities for artists. I’ve never really fantasized about living in New York or other places. I operate from the belief that you make the work and they will come. We now exist in a period that affords artists the opportunity to live and work anywhere as the market has expanded beyond New York, the Internet makes anything possible and people are searching far and wide for to discover new and exciting work and trends.

Cara: If you could create any kind of art in any existing place – what would it be and where?

Denise: I would create an installation/museum in my maternal grandparents’ home that I own in Lake Charles, LA. It would be both a home and a museum. This notion/idea is related to the way that outsider artists present and live with their work.

Cara: What upcoming projects and exhibits do you have lined up? What are you working on right now?

Denise: I’m currently working as an artist in residence with Art on Purpose and for their Everyone An Artist? project. Everything that I’m making now will be offered up to for possible inclusion in the Everyone An Artist? series of exhibitions (small and large) in 8+/- university and college galleries and display spaces spring 2009.

Cara: What is the most surprising thing you have had to learn by being an artist?

Denise: That everyone is not like me in that most don’t find something likable in all art. I tend to understand all points of view and am hard pressed to box in ideas and feelings about this thing and that.

Cara: What is your definition of success?

Denise: Success for me rests within the ability to always be able to create, to have an uninterrupted life of productivity and to be able to glimpse that life/creation/productivity at the end of my life. So in a sense success for me is a process.

Cara: What are you reading right now?

Denise: Wonderous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould, by Kevin Bazzana; Inventing Kindergarten, by Norman Brosterman; and a book about lives of female artists.

Cara: Your work comes off as very playful and humorous. However, your approach to the work is quite serious. How do you feel about this conundrum between seriousness and play? How do these two elements work together? When you view works of art by other artists, do you have a preference for serious or silly work?

Denise: I don’t feel that there is a conundrum between seriousness and play since I’m presenting a single life and life is made up of everything – funny and serious, past and present, happy and sad. I don’t have a preference between serious and silly and tend to like something in all art that I see.

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