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Artist-Writer-Artist: Linda Peer

"How I got where I am today", (bird, side view), mosaic sculpture, 37" x 30" x 14"

Linda Peer is a sculptor and a writer, who teaches part of the year in the Fine Art Department of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. I encountered Linda in an unusual way. When I was in Utah recently, I stayed for two nights in a place called Torrey. More or less at random, I went into a bookstore/coffee house to get breakfast. Linda was at one of the tables, working on her laptop. We were introduced by the owner of the coffee house, and after a few minutes during which I discovered that Linda was a sculptor who had recently begun writing, I asked if she would be willing to talk about that process for my blog. Here is the interview that resulted from that chance meeting in the canyonlands of the west.

Philip: You made art (and taught at the Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC) for many years before you started writing. What caused this need to express yourself in fiction?
Linda: My perspective on fiction is not that I particularly desired to express myself in it or through it, but rather that I decided to bring the tools of fiction to bear on the same old questions. As a matter of fact, there are many things I don't like about writing--for instance, you have to manipulate darkness and light in a much less graceful way than in visual media. And writing does not use up enough energy. Sometimes writing is so physically repressing and restraining that I want to get up and jump around the room. Sculpture efficiently burns intellectual and emotional energy created by working in the physical furnace of the body.
The question I might ask myself is this: Why was I frustrated with the tools I was using, namely sculpture and some painting?

Maybe I care too much about sculpture. I did not seem to be able to satisfy myself. I would work in a certain way, develop, create some excellent works in that form, and then it would go dead for me and I would make some terrible pieces. I would give it up, fiddle around, go skiing, hike, get another idea and gradually develop that, do some danged good work in that form, and then the accursed thing would go dead on me again! You get the picture. I could see the process, the boom and bust cycle, but I could not cure it. In the vast world of sculpture, where you can always learn more and develop more, I was stuck. I mean, Lucas Samarus can work that way and create fabulous work--it is not impossible--and I would be Lucas Samarus if I could.

If you'd like to see who did the sculpture I would have liked to have done, take a look at Tim Hawkinson. His stuff is so grand, so silly, so vulnerable, and so being-like that it pierces my heart.

Besides that, to make things worse, and frustratingly, I'd wandered off into making photographs of sculpture, people dressed up as sculpture, and non-sculpture, as part of the process. Photography was just as unsatisfying physically as writing and had other problems besides.

So I took my toys: my explorations of identity, my formal concerns and obsessions, and my questions about what identity does to us (I mean, how much of Donald Trump's persona is caused by his belief that a guy like him must have a full head of hair?), and I decided I would not play any more and went home. Well, I went to the other side of the studio and started writing. Oh, there was a practical issue I should mention: I'd begun living in Utah and was still teaching in NY, and when I was in the East I was vagabondish and did not have a studio.

For me, all fine art has a density that the less serious versions of the same forms do not have. You go to a museum with your art buddies, and you talk and argue about one aspect of a work, and then another. Let us say we are looking at Kara Walker. I say: Wow, the use of scale, of big and tiny, is witty and gorgeous. You say: Look at the delicate beauty of the negative spaces. I say: Yes, in work that is really not nice, a piece that refers to coercive and manipulative sexuality. You say: Yet the negative spaces give this buoyant, lyrical energy to the work. I say: Then there is the way the viewer recognizes the stereotypes represented, and the thought of the scariness of being stereotyped: you are just a piece of meat.

This does not happen with work of less density and seriousness. What could be more wonderful? Yes, other things are as wonderful, but what could be more wonderful?

That is what I am after, that fine-art density. I want to see it, I want to do it, and truth be told, I do not care how I get it.

excerpt from "Foreclosure with Deer" (read the full story here)
I wait silently behind the door until the pounding stops. The cop shouts, "Mr. Smith, this is officer Dwight Longwood." He waits. "Your Execution of Eviction notice has been in place for forty-eight hours. Tomorrow morning we will remove you from the premises. At that point, you will be under arrest." His officious tone softens. "It would be best for you to leave of your own accord. There is really no other option."
He sounds like a young guy who has not yet suffered disappointment, a guy who is fortunate enough to have a livelihood that has not been eviscerated by the recession. My deer rifle rests in the corner by the door, loaded. Out the side window I can see that the lilacs in the overgrown yard next door have opened. I cannot see the for sale sign, but I see one farther away, neat and stark in the tangled grass. I go upstairs, watch the cop get into his car, open the window, and inhale the scent of sun-warmed lilacs. I have nothing against him. I think half the lawns in the development have gone to meadow. On this sunny cloudy afternoon, I like the way the tall grass and early flowers sway, like something from a time before lawns, when people homesteaded here.
Back downstairs, I see that a young buck, naked of antlers of course, is poking in the apple tree, hunting for wizened fruit. He's just doing his job. He finds an apple and plucks it delicately. For once I have the time to pay attention.

Philip: Your short stories have a strong sense of first-person voice and a dramatic sense of scene. Do you feel any similarity between those elements in your writing and your sculpture, or are they very separate and different?
Linda: I love teaching 3D design: you help students learn how to break things down into parts so they can manipulate them for their own purposes. I just talked about Kara Walker, who uses really simple design elements to great effect. When I began to write, I saw it the same way: what are the parts, the tools at hand? How can I use them? I learned to telemark ski the same way. So I see sculpture and writing as very parallel and similar, and I see complex athletic activities the same way, and I see my own mind and its character in all of these. For me, these realms have similar structures, and they often have similar lights and darknesses.
When I started to write, I began with a novel and then wrote shorter and shorter pieces until I was writing micro-fiction. I was attempting to manipulate as few variables at one a time as possible so that I could learn how each one worked. I kept thinking, “If I could just figure out how to do X, if I could just figure out how to do Y, then....”

"Rolling", wood, 36" tall x 5' 6" x 3' 4"

Philip: Much of your 3-d work has playful qualities, a close attention to texture and colour, building into unexpected and surprising forms. Again, what parallels/differences do you see between the way you construct a sculpture and a story?

Linda: I hope my fiction is playful, too. If I shoot you in the heart, I hope I will entice you to smile first. Figuratively speaking, of course.
The realm of the physical, the realm of texture, color and shape but also of ski aerials, light on NYC windows, and mountain lions, has to be approached in a different and indirect way in writing. This is an ongoing and incomplete thought, and I can't say more about it, except that I would like to show experience in the realm of the physical. Thinking back to Donald Trump, he is visibly rejecting the way he is embodied, right? And all his money does not change that for him. What does that say about identity?

Philip: Have you noticed any change in your art-making after you return to it from the writing?
Linda: I get to miss some of the unbearable parts where everything I make sucks?
What is happening is sort of the opposite: I desire visual elements as parts of stories these days. I have a story with ads in it, and I want an art-director friend to make the ads. I've been making (very rough) story boards for stories and then I write from them. I took video of the sunflower jungle in our Utah yard on a windy night. The motion of the flower heads looked like something under the ocean, and I want to mix that video with a story.

Philip: Going forward, what developments do you imagine for your art-making and your writing?

Linda: I don't know about specifics. But I imagine my work getting better, that is, more satisfyingly fine-art like!

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  1. There is quite a lot of parallel between the art and the writing here, I think. Even in the short excerpt you published here, Hartigan, the color and movement and gesture is very much like the color and movement and gesture in the art. Interesting. I love this talk about density in the work as well, something I have always admired in strong writing and have come to admire in visual art. Thank you Philip and Linda for this very interesting perspective.


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