Interview with Serra Victoria Bothwell Fels, our January Artist of the Month

January 22, 2014


Cinders: where do you live?
SVBF: Brooklyn, but I travel about a third or so of the year.


Cinders: what is your art studio and working environment like? when do you typically clock in?
SVBF: My studio is often whichever site I’m installing in. It’s been a convent, a snowmobile warehouse, an abandoned secret society hall, all over the map. I recently got an actual studio five blocks from my house and it’s been amazing to have all my supplies in one place with good people around that close to home. I like working in the mornings if I can, but lately in this weather it’s been an afternoon or evening thing.


Cinders: when did you start making art? did you always know you wanted to be an artist?
SVBF: My whole life I’ve always thought in vivid pictures. I don’t think I ever directly thought about being an artist; I just started pursuing everything I’m interested in all at once in the way that I think naturally and it became art– social and environmental effects on human psychology, family systems, community interactions, universal interconnectedness, how-to culture, building mechanics and processes, tools– I suppose the big header is How Things Work.


Cinders: why triangles?
SVBF: Because they can be perfect but they don’t have to be. I’m floored by the immensity of generations that go into a single person. I use triangles and geometry to think about the maps of other people that make up ourselves.


Cinders: what are you listening to in the studio?
SVBF: A lot of audiobooks. I just finished Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. Music wise, Bon Iver on a slightly crazy repeat– I have a notable patience for things on repeat– Atoms for Peace, Beach House, Symphony of the Planets (NASA recordings) and Erik Satie late at night. This week it’s Beyonce’s new album.


Cinders: what is inspiring you these days?
SVBF: The expansive feeling triggered by vast landscapes, cathedral ceilings, microscopic pictures of snowflakes, “A Field Guide To Getting Lost” by Rebecca Solnit and “The Poetics of Space” by Gaston Bachelard. Japanese hand tools. The Cave of Crystals in Mexico.


Cinders: Last good film you saw?
SVBF: Brent Green’s live narration of his film To Too Many Men Strange Fates Are Given. He has a confident nervousness that’s just captivating. Go if you get a chance to see him, he’s amazing.


Cinders: Can you describe your artistic process a little?
SVBF: I develop a feeling of a plan, but not a detailed one so that it doesn’t go toward rational, mechanical territory. And then I work from and towards that feeling. Often I make fantastical blueprints as a starting point and then an installation that departs foggily from there. The blueprints usually have a lot to do with geometrically abstracting family systems and inherited patterns. Often I make a bunch of 3D triangles out of lath– the wood used behind plaster walls– and start playing with shapes and how they make a space feel, and then start connecting them. I like when I can get the shapes to lightly hum together. That light vibrancy. I’m not sure if I do that, but that’s what I work towards.


Cinders: do you have any favorite quotes or mottos?
SVBF: I have a Pema Chodron quote book in my truck that I open up like a fortune teller. Let’s see, today’s is… “To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest.” Ooh nice one. I like that. Embracing being unsure and uncomfortable as a mark of our own full existence.


Cinders: if you could have any superpower what would it be?
SVBF: Lift and move any object with my mind without expending any energy. Definitely. I’d start making epically massive things and saving people from collapsed buildings. If that one was taken… I’d be down with constantly being perfectly hydrated without ever needing to pee or drink water.


Cinders: what is your favorite spot in the world right now?
SVBF: A cottage on a small island in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan that has been in my family for 93 years. You have to have a small boat to get there, and the place hasn’t changed much over that time, mostly due to my dad’s staunch governing as the self-appointed only member of the Fels Historical Society. The horse hair mattresses on the sleeping porch might be one of the contested items (although I’m on his team about it). But my great-grandfather’s backpack is still hanging in the laundry room, and there’s my grandmother’s paintings throughout the house, and a book upstairs that my dad drew in when he was four. The air up there smells crisp and clear and full. There’s nothing quite like it.


Cinders: where do you feel at home?
SVBF: When I’m stationary nothing feels better to me than being in Brooklyn. It’s the only place I’ve lived that can tire me out. I’m a funny combination of a homebody and incessant traveler so I try to make answers to that question most places I go. For a while I carried a 3’x5′ Turkish carpet so I could have a static sense of home with me as I traveled. Often I find it in people. I love the placeless sense of place we make in each other, that you find when you run into people you know in places far away from where you know them. Once I was in a hostel in northern Brazil and met a French guy at breakfast; we figured out that he had done an exchange to my classmate’s house in Tennessee and we had been ice skating together when we were eleven.


Cinders: what are you currently working on?
SVBF: Winterizing. Future plans and new paintings. I’m talking with the Clocktower Gallery about maybe doing the ceiling in their new radio recording room, which I’m so excited by. I did a ceiling in a group installation at the Palais de Tokyo this past summer that’s had me wanting to do another one.


Cinders: do you envision a positive future or do you think we are all fucked? apocalypse theories?
SVBF: I think we’re as fucked as we let ourselves be. We’re doing a pretty crummy job at taking care of each other, but I’m not ready to give up on us yet. Maybe one day we’ll all have real health care, corporations won’t be considered people, the government will represent us instead of spying on us, and schools will be beautiful places made by artists instead of prison manufacturers. We’ll reuse or recycle most everything, have an inventive fossil fuel solution, take care of other countries with less and quit greeding for moremoremore. That’s probably some pretty hippie shit, but I’d sure love to be around to see that happen.


Cinders: what is your spirit animal?
SVBF: Maybe a lynx. They’re such awkwardly elegant cats, I love it.


Cinders: what astrological sign are you? do you relate to it? if yes, how?
SVBF: Leo sun + Scorpio rising + Pisces moon. I didn’t until I found out I was fire with a lot of water. A lot of my characteristics are opposites. Like being a homebody and a wanderer, needing a lot of social and solitude, wanting to tell a good story and be a good listener. It’s a really funny experience being myself.


Cinders: who are some of your favorite artists currently?
SVBF: El Anatsui and Kiki Smith. Kiki Smith’s exhibit at the SFMOMA maybe ten years ago made me start considering art as a viable format for all the things I love doing. And El Anatsui’s recent show at the Brooklyn Museum was just killer. I love his jump on installations as movable pieces whose meanings reconfigure with new sites and arrangements. That hit home.


Cinders: where do you see yourself in 10 years?
SVBF: I’m excited to find out. I feel like it could go so many ways.


Cinders: what would be your last meal before execution?
SVBF: Salmon sashimi, all of it. And some amazing rice pudding.