Friday, August 20, 2010

Art, for Fuck's Sake: An Interview with Julia Bergen

The term "crafts" has become yet another branch on the increasingly knotty family tree of Art, but it has been relegated to one of the lowest, least regarded branches. Why is this? What makes art Art? Should it inspire? Should it perplex? Should it confront? Should it convey a message? Should it be pretty? Could it ever include an afghan lovingly crocheted by Nana?

The artwork of Julia Bergen prompts many of the questions asked above by using traditional female crafts in subversive ways. She has also received formal training in a number of other media that fall under the traditional definition of fine arts. I had the pleasure of interviewing this East Bay native a few weeks ago, during which she explained her philosophy of art.

AD: You paint, you sketch, you cross-stitch—what’s your favorite medium? Why?

Print-making. It’s the process, but mostly the community that’s built around it. It’s really expensive. [With print-making,] you get this community of artists who are interested in this medium [because they share materials and work space], so it’s really good for artists; it takes you out of this really solitary environment. You’re seeing what other people are doing, and how they’re doing it. You build friendships. It’s like collective knowledge.

[Also,] lithography. You use limestone. It’s all a chemical process that is based on the concept that water and oil don’t mix. You get this chunk of limestone, and it’s quarried in Bavaria, and you’re working off of these slabs of limestone. You grain the stone (make the stone flat, the right smoothness to draw on).

[As a student] at UC Santa Cruz, I focused on "intaglio": etching. But I fell in love with lithography because it was much more conducive to the way I think, my drawing style. It’s additive: Everything you draw will be marked on the stone. It’s not reductive [like etching].

It’s a beautiful process. You build a relationship with the stone. Each one is a different size. Based on the age of the stone, it gets thinner and thinner. You grain the stone each time you use it. The stone has a history. You get what’s called a ghost image. That’s after you’ve printed, and you’re done with that image. There’s a tool called a levigator, what you use to grain the stone. You’re manually sanding it down. You see the decline of what was your image. So it’s in that you start to see the ghost image, so even when all the ink is removed, you can see it [the image] in the stone.

AD: Going back to cross-stitching, the image on the business card you gave me is of a cross-stitching with two cakes—each with a cherry on top—and the word “lovertits.” This is a medium typically thought of as more of a craft than a legitimate art form. Why have you chosen to use cross-stitching in such an unexpected way?

I learned how to cross-stitch when I was very young. It was something my mom and grandmother did. The subject matter was never relevant to my life. [But] I enjoy the process of it, the skill, the patience, the history. But I was not interested in the subject matter, [such as] Winnie the Pooh. I got more into cross-stitching when I was around 20. Subversive cross-stiching, writing sayings—I thought, That’s a cool idea. I was inspired by that. My first one just said: “Fuck.” Around it were very delicate flowers. I liked the juxtaposition: your grandmother would never have anything that said “fuck” in her house.

It’s also about sitting in a place, putting in your energy and time. I love folk art; I think it’s kind of ridiculous that there’s a distinction between craft and fine art. Anything you make with your hands is fine art. You’re still using a material that you didn’t make from its infancy. What is art to you? That’s art. It’s never the same across the board.

AD: How has your cross-stitching been received? Any skeptics?

I’ve had really positive reaction because it’s not a type of art or craft that a lot of people my age are doing. Most people don’t know what I mean by “cross-stitch.” There’s something very old-time about it, like banjos and the South. They [people my age] like that it’s swear words. I’ve made some custom ones for friends, like “Cunt.” A lot of my friends are like, if that was on the street, I’d totally buy it. It lends itself well to my generation. I’m not charging a lot for them [my cross-stitching]; it’s something you can collect.

AD: Do you find that your artwork shares a common theme?

I guess it’s more about my style as an artist. I’m always interested in color, pattern. It helps me process memory, seeing what images come to mind, people, places. If I draw a certain pattern, it’s like remembering that time in my life. It’s nice to express myself not in words. I’m translating that through my hands. I’m affecting. It’s something you’re viewing. It’s like sharing in a different way. You’re going to have your own interpretation of this [particular artwork], but you’re experiencing a certain side of my reality.

AD: As an artist, do you feel that your work is a way to convey a message to people, or is it simply a creative outlet—without any conscious attempt to communicate with the viewer?

I think it’s more creative. If I were the only person on the planet, I’d still be creating. I expect to share most of my art. Whereas my journal is very private, my art is not something I hoard. But it’s not creating with the explicit intent to sell it.

AD: What do you feel is your biggest artistic achievement at this point?

I had been working my ass off the entire year for the print sale [at UC Santa Cruz]. I wanted to accomplish something for myself, see how much I could dedicate myself. Seeing how far I had come, it was so much. Wow, look at this community I built! Look how I’ve been able to express myself better, and sell my art! To have someone else acknowledge that... I probably had between 600-700 prints. I’ve never counted.

AD: Last question: What does “feminist” mean to you, and do you consider yourself to be one?

It’s [feminist] when females acknowledge the power in being a female, and kind of reveling in that. We’re all human, but it’s a different experience being a woman than a man. History has portrayed women as the inferior sex. It’s not about “men are shit,” but being like, “Yes, I experience life differently.” Women process things differently a lot of the times. The way we express/process our emotions is different. [Being a feminist is] not being ashamed of that, [and it’s about] women building community around that. Women often separate themselves [from one another]: Oh, you’re thinner. Let’s get together and connect on an emotional level. Yeah, [laughs] I consider myself a feminist.

Julia Bergen is having an artist’s reception on Friday, August 27th at Café Zoe, located at 6000 College Ave. in the Rockridge neighborhood of Oakland, California. Her artwork will be for sale at Café Zoe for a month following the reception.

To view some of her cross-stitches and make purchases, click on the title of this interview.