Deborah Boardman is a painter and installation artist living by the lake. She was a 2013 Chicago Artist’s month featured artist.
Interviewed by: Kristina Daignault & Michael Soto.
Deborah: You know that at college of DuPage, our performance, we were singing on a fault line, so I decided to have my house done.
Michael: Is it like a geological survey?
D: This is very esoteric, and it’s divination. There’s no scientific evidence. The people that I work with, they are an older couple who live in upstate New York, and they use a pendulum. So, I sent them a map, and they mailed me back the same map with the lines drawn on it.
Kristina: It’s based on the ground beneath the building?
D: Yeah. So the blue lines, there’s two water lines, and there’s one, two, three, four, five fault lines, and there’s a convergence. I juxtaposed it—and this is from this book, which I got from a French guy I met at a dinner party. This is kind of a weird serendipity. I told him how I was interested in how old churches feel to be inside of them, and I wanted to go and research them more because it seems like there’s some really interesting energy, and he got excited, and a year later, I got this book. I haven’t seen this guy since 2004, and he sent me this book, and the book is full of information and diagrams.
Here are Roman church floor plans in France, which indicate that there’s all of these different kinds of water lines and what are called ley lines. Ley lines are magnetic lines that run roughly longitudinal and latitudinal. You can see that there are places where a bunch of them converge, and that’s where they put the altar. The idea is that there would be currents, and they have this pull on you, like the moon—it pulls the tides. Currents under the earth pull on you, so when you build the church on places like that, when you go in, you’re going to feel something. It’s going to increase your sense of spiritual transformation.
K: Does the water line correspond to any actual water? I only ask this because when I was in Italy a few years ago, we went to a church, and two levels below, underground, there was actually water running through it.
D: I don’t know the answer, but these people who wrote this book would say, “Yes, the water’s actually there,” and they gave this anecdote about churches that they found that were in high places, so less likely to have a stream underneath, and they found underneath the floor stones river stones that had been put underneath. So the river stones hold a memory of the water.
D: Yeah, so I found this completely and mind-blowingly interesting, and when I found out about it, I wanted to somehow figure out ways of investigating wherever I’m having an exhibition–investigating what’s there and trying to correspond or relate to it in some way. Have it inform what I make and how it’s placed in the space to increase the awareness we have to where we are in the earth.
K: Did you expect more lines on your map?
D: I don’t know what I expected, but this is what I got. So I’ve been using the floor map of the house and making a bunch of different gouaches. The images that I’m making, I’m using this liquid mask. So this is a floor plan print of the house, and what’s interesting to me about it is that it has a sense of a different layer, a different space. So this idea of making what’s invisible visible and using very abstract painting language… or maybe more symbolic painting language.
K: Do you have a favorite paint brush? You have a lot of consistency in line weight.
D: Yeah, the thing with the mask is that it ruins paint brushes, so I have to buy the cheapest ones. I hate buying crappy cheap brushes, and they’re gross, but I can’t risk it. The brushes that I love are these… they’re all looking a little ratty. They’re squirrel, and they hold lots and lots of water and paint, and they make really nice lines.
K: You use water color?
K: Yeah, I really like it. I started out a long time ago with water color, and I haven’t kept up with painting, but I did end up on a preference for these because of the smoothness.
D: Yes. I love gouache.
K: So we usually ask: what kind of artist do you consider yourself? Would you say painter?
D: I would say “Painter and…” Painter and installation artist. I organized a symposium—what the hell does that make me?
K: How does a symposium fit into your art practice.
D: Well, I think it’s about the connection to the environment. This actually began by being very discouraged about what we do in relationship to the environment. The way we plop down a Target anywhere, or a McDonald’s. These buildings are just plopped down, and they don’t have anything to do with where they are except, “Will this make more money for the corporation?”
K: Do you shop at Target?
D: I try not to. It’s hard to avoid, since they put everything else out of business. So I was trying to think of things that people build that are not horrible, and I thought about old churches. We travelled in Europe when I was nine, and that was my first exposure, and in my 20s, I remember experiencing Chartres with some friends. It was mind-blowing to me. You haven’t been?
D: I’m sure that in Italy you experienced the same thing. This feeling like it’s been there forever, and it just secreted out of the ground… organically emerged. And then I was just thinking a lot about that and thinking about how amazing it felt to be inside. So that led along a serpentine path to where I am right now, and the symposium, I joined a group of non-artist friends, they’re family friends, who are thinking about turning the old post office into a vertical garden, and I was really interested in what would it be like to brainstorm with people who have really good minds and do really good things, and what will come out of that? That group, we’d been meeting for about a year when I went to India, and I met this artist Akshay, who came during the symposium and I had this conversation with him about my interests, and he was doing a big project with this native village, and out of that group, the symposium began.
K: That was just an off-chance meeting?
D: Yeah, totally.
K: Tell us a little bit more about the symposium.
D: Well, there were meals that are collaborations with chefs, artists, and farmers. We did a practice run with my students beforehand, with Amber Ginsburg. Ken Dunn is the patriarch of urban farming. He’s been doing it for 35 years, and his compost is like black gold. The exhibit is really quite amazing. Kevin Kaempf really did 99.9% of it. There was Indian style street food at the reception. Also, tours and workshops, and at the end of the day, there was a big meal. A lot of the artists who made work about this, they didn’t make paintings. Painting is not exactly an activist kind of form. There are a lot of artists whose work is much more didactive. More activist.
M: There are artists who consider themselves activists. But what do you feel that artists are bringing to the table?
D: I think it’s the symbolic language that isn’t dogmatic. It’s not lectury, it’s not preachy, and it can be experienced on a lot of different levels, and it’s experiential, and it enables you to see the possibility before something actually exists. There is a lot of urban agriculture happening now as opposed to corporate agriculture, and my hope is that the excitement around it continues to build so that there can be a better way of living and growing food.
K: So the symposium for you was about getting attention for the initiative?
D: Galvanizing enthusiasm.
K: Perfect wording. Now, you also founded the International Network for Urban Agriculture?
D: Yes. That’s the group that originally thought we were going to try to start an indoor garden at the old post office. The website has been launched for a while, and now the next big move is a big fundraiser so we can hire somebody who can be almost a newspaper editor, but for the website.
K: So you think you might still use that space for making an urban garden inside of it? Or you think you might end up with one somewhere in Chicago?
D: It’s funny because no one was interested in doing it if it wasn’t in the old post office, doing it in another building. Everyone was like, “Oh my god, that place is so awesome.”
K: So where you left it is, “If it doesn’t work out here, we might not do it”?
D: Well, what happened was there were a lot of roadblocks about that. There’s a wealthy man who lives in England who owns it, and he wants to change it into a casino.
K: Wow. Can you imagine that actually working out? Does he think Americans like casinos?
D: We’ll see. Yeah, Americans do like casinos. But we decided that we would create this website. It’s a global website, and it’s to provide all things useful, pertinent, interesting related to urban agriculture.
K: I just saw your video pretty recently, the one with a lot of little paintings that were were sort of animated?
D: Oh, the one from India. The Double Ecstasy one?
K: Yes, Did you show that in a gallery space?
D: Hyde Park Art Center.
K: Did you spend a lot of time observing people there by any chance? I’m just curious if people stayed for the duration of the animation.
D: I think not so much, especially because you had to put the earphones on to get the sound, and I think the soundtrack is pretty important.
K: Did you make the paintings inside of it for the movie, or did the movie come after?
D: The vast majority of the paintings, I would say 90%, were done for the animation, and they were done from photographs that I took in India. There were a couple of patterns that I had done while I was in India. I think I did all of [the portraits] when I came back.
K: Because they’re so small…
D: A lot of the portraits are actually big.
M: Do you do take a lot of pictures in general?
D: Not until I went to India, I hardly ever took pictures. I had an iPhone, and I was like, “Oh yeah, this is a camera.”
K: And so you also make books?
K: That’s very interesting. I saw that section on your website. Do you sew your books?
D: Yeah, I tend to do the paintings looseleaf, and I’ll hinge them together, and then I’ll sew those hinges. I’m not very good at it because I’m not a very persnickety person. I’m not good at persnickety things.
K: The ones I saw on the website looked very book-like to me.
D: Yeah, but sometimes I have somebody else do it for me, and sometimes I do it myself.
K: So you use it as a documentation of project or they’re their own separate thing?
D: They’re their own thing.
K: In a few of your videos, you’re singing. Is that an element you bring to the rest of them?
D: I love to sing, but right now, I’m only singing by myself when I go for walks. Or maybe in the studio with something playing. I was really really happy when I was singing with Paola. What a voice she has. And Ryan.
M: The La La La Singers?
D: The La La La Singers was so much fun, and it just kind of dissolved, and the energy wasn’t there for it.
K: Did you guys do more than one presentation?
D: We sang at my thing at College of DuPage. We did the Five Funerals—the Death of Painting thing. We also sang at the Op Shop. That was really fun. And also at Threewalls.
K: Do you think you might again?
D: I would love to, but I don’t know who’s going to do it with me. So it’s just a question mark. It’s really fun to sing with other people. You get really high.
K: Tell us about ED JR.
D: Our last collaboration was the show at Columbia
K: I liked that. When Chris was describing you guys working together, I was very confused about how that was going to come together. My vision wasn’t that far out, but when it actually happened, I was like, “This makes so much sense now.” I know that people who were just coming to the show wouldn’t know any of that background confusion that’s unique to us, friends of artists. But that show was pretty great. I was like, “What are they doing next?”
D: I know, it was really sad that we weren’t continuing on.
K: That seems like a trend of collaborating for a while and moving focus.
D: I know, it does. What happened was I went to India right after that show. That was in the fall. I was working madly on animation, and then the project at 6018 North came up, and then I went back to India.
K: Everyone that we’ve talked to about India has expounded on its greatness.
D: I met a woman who is a beautiful fashion French designer who lives in Delhi who had moved there ten years ago, and she said, “I just feel so much more alive here.”
K: By a product of amount of people? Energy in a space?
D: It’s not just that there’s a lot of people. The interactions that you have with people are… You get welcomed into somebody’s home, and the families are really big and extended and very cohesive, and you’re just brought right in, so there’s this incredible sense of hospitality and welcoming, and this very warm and intimate relationship feeling. Reverence is such an ancient part of the culture, so everywhere you go, you take off your shoes to go into somebody’s house, you take off your shoes to go into a temple, and that’s normal. It’s normal to be reverent. The clothing that people wear… girls don’t just have a bracelet, they have twenty bracelets and sparkles. This is this pattern, this is this pattern. The way people move in their bodies–they’re not alienated from their bodies the way we are. And the food on the streets and in the markets… it’s very chaotic. Things are all smashed together, rich, poor, horrible, and beautiful, right together. So there’s this kind of embrace of the whole spectrum of life. We clean it up and box it up. Crossing the street is a big adventure because there’s no traffic laws.
K: That sounds dangerous.
D: “OK, I’m walking with you. Let’s go!”
M: There was one specific video, I think it was on your Facebook. There was a fire happening.
D: Oh, that was the harvest festival where the animals are painted with pigments. They were mostly cows and sheeps and maybe goats. Every animal had its own pigment patterned painting, and the animals had to jump over this mount of straw set on fire.
K: How do you compel them to do that?
D: The owners would run with them. My Indian friends who had never seen this festival were like, “Is this OK for the animals?” And we’re like, “The humans are doing it, too.” Nobody gets hurt, but it’s very exciting. The ritual is just so powerful. That sense of… you know it’s been done for thousands of years.
After a productive summer residency at Oxbow Deborah is currently back in India to participate in the Kriti Artist Residency. After which she will present The Knowledge Project as a collateral event of the Kochi Biennale in collaboration with Tricia Van Eck and The Rhizome Alliance