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Artist Interview: Sarah McDermott, Part II

… part II of my interview with artist Sarah McDermott. See Part I here

AS: Do you feel that, having experienced the stream, does that change the way you think about the area, or how you experience it when you drive through?

SM: Yeah, I mean for one because this project ended up being me mapping my experience of the stream, so it was kind of a personal, perception-based thing. But also, while I was getting to that point, I ended up exploring a bunch of other things, so I learned a lot about the history of the area.

Actually, right next to the stream, there’s this place called Tinner Hill that was the first rural chapter of the NAACP. So that was pretty fascinating. There’s actually a little, tiny historical marker there that you could just totally miss.

So, delving into it just gave me this increased sense of depth of the area, but that was kind of tangential to the project. And also, realizing the extent to which the stream had already been mapped — because when I did start to look there were FEMA flood plans, there are soil maps, you know because if it’s a certain soil quality, you need to build in a certain way. It’s all related to development. So you know, humans managing to live beside what used to be a very changeable, dynamic urban water system, but now they’re trying to constrain it so that people have an easier time dealing with it.

So I actually ended up talking to like fifteen different government agencies who all have different interactions with this stream. That was really interesting to me to be like, we have a really big government! It’s deep! There are government biologists, there are people related to sewerage, related to water quality, related to the flood stuff, related to development issues. Every component of that stream has already been inspected and mapped. I mean, I never had any ideas that this was a wild stream, but it was like, there is nothing that we don’t try to control about this stream or that we don’t try to understand or map. There is no element of it being wild.

AS: The data they’re collecting is of a certain nature that is measurable, but your map is more about that experience of being interrupted or fragmented — you know, there’s a history that their maps don’t capture.

SM: Yeah, it kind of falls into a funny territory. I’ve had people ask me, “can I use your book as a guide book?” I mean, you can try but I definitely took artistic liberties. It’s that funny thing of, ok, I have this concept that’s constraining my project to give it form, but I’m also interested in making a beautiful object. So, this part?

This is two signs mushed into one. It’s one sign that had the Quarry Inn on it and then another sign that was an arrow. And I thought, well, I don’t really want to do both signs, but I want there to be a sign with an arrow in it and I wanted to do the Quarry Inn because I want it to be a clue to this section right here.

So, you know, I took liberties in terms of that kind of thing. So, it’s not really a map, it’s not really a guidebook, even.

AS: Yeah, that’s a thing I enjoyed about the work, like the other work that was in the Artists’ Maps show — it takes that kernel of an idea of a map as something that could orient, or not necessarily be geographically connected, but give the lay of the land metaphorically, even, about some network of data that’s collected by an artist. I enjoyed the way that people took liberties with that idea.

SM: There is a lot of work being made now that’s about data. I don’t know quite what to think about it because, you know, the maps that I was using, they’re supposed to give you knowledge for some sort of purpose. This is much more diffuse. It’s referencing knowledge and our desire to know, reflecting more on that desire rather than the actual knowledge.

So it’s interesting, all this data art is kind of reflecting on our desire to know, to contain, to understand, I think.

And then, also, graphically it can just be really fun. This constraint that you’re putting on yourself. That’s always the challenge when you’re doing any kind of project– what are the boundaries of this? What is the start and what is the end? Anything can turn into anything. It’s so hard to know, like if I’m doing research-based projects, it’s hard to know: where do I stop that research? Where is my little insertion point into this giant topic? Working on something like data or a map is really a very constrained way to look at a topic, so it’s liberating in a sense.

AS: One thing I think that ties together a lot of the work in the exhibit is that, like a traditional map, the artist has to filter the information, or say: this map is about this type of information. How did you decide what should go in and what shouldn’t?

SM: Well, I basically decided based on which parts of the stream I could access. Every page of the book sort of functions as a vignette. [paging through the book] This is this section of the stream and this page is this section of the stream. It’s not like I took out a ruler and was gridding it out. It would be a different project. It was totally just how I thought it would function visually that made me decide that, ok, this width of a page represents this much of the stream. And it does something kind of funny because it equalizes every part. Because each page is the same width, it gives each part the same weight.

Above, detail of a fold-out spread in McDermott’s book Channel & Flow.

But sometimes I included, in between — like this section, where it goes underneath this building, this was the very next thing, but in between here and here, there was all this other stuff that maybe I couldn’t figure out how to represent graphically, or wasn’t as interested in. And I really liked the juxtaposition of certain things between these two. So it was definitely like a back and forth between what I actually saw in that moment and what kind of object I wanted to make.

I wasn’t following strict rules. And that’s probably an interesting project, like no matter what the outcome, it is what it is. It’d be less product-oriented; I just happen to be fixated on the book as an object. I want to make objects that I want to hold over and over again, because in some way, they’re beautiful, as opposed to being strict, “that’s what I saw, so that’s what’s there.”

Interview with Sarah McDermott, Part I



In March, I had a great conversation with artist Sarah McDermott about her book Channel & Flow, which was included in our Artists’ Maps exhibit. The book is about McDermott’s experience following the struggling Tripps Run stream in Northern Virginia. Although McDermott is local to DC, she is currently on residency at the Oregon College of Art and Craft, so we caught up online. Below is part I of our conversation… keep your eyes peeled for part II!

Anne Smith: Would you tell us a little bit about Tripps Run and your experience walking that path? What drew you to explore the stream?

Sarah McDermott: Tripps Run was actually kind of a random choice in that I wasn’t setting out to map a specific waterway. I was trying to follow any sort of urban waterway wherever it would lead me. With that said, I ended up being specifically drawn to Tripps Run by the surrounding neighborhood because it’s in an area that feels like it’s situated in this specific time period; it feels very late 60s, early 70s, maybe.

I just thought that was really interesting, so I was hanging around in that neighborhood a little bit, thinking it’s not developing in the same way that certain other parts of suburban DC are. And then I noticed Tripps Run running through it. And I had already had this waterways project in my head, so I thought, OK, let me mess around with this stream, see what’s going on with it.

So, I ended up walking and driving the length of it because frequently, when I was walking I would get stopped by something, it would just disappear into an area that I couldn’t access. Either there were fences or bramble or people’s properties abutted in a certain way that I couldn’t access it. So I ended up, at a couple points, having to drive all over the place trying to figure out where the next point of access was.

At the end of the book there is actually a little map I was drawing as I was doing that. And so it’s kind of loop-de-loop.

Hand-drawn Map in Channel & Flow.Hand-drawn map in Channel & Flow.

AS: So you had this interest in waterways but Tripps Run was also compelling because it was mysterious or kind of an oddity? Something that doesn’t get explored very often?

SM: It definitely had that feeling of being ignored or forgotten because everything was growing up around it. It’s kind of funny because we’re in a time period where people are really using waterways and capitalizing on them for ideas about nature, ideas about what a city should be: using the edges of a river as meeting places, as gathering places, walking and meandering along the river as a way of enjoying your city.

So, there’s a lot of movement to uncover waterways, and [the state of Tripps Run] struck me as the opposite. It was like, nobody cares about this. We’re just going about our business trying not to have it flood us out. And really, the only people using this stream in any way — because, that’s our relationship with water, is that we’re using it in some way or another — the only things using the stream were animals drinking out of it, which is sort of questionable because it’s not good quality water. There are ducks or cats drinking out of it and people have basically put their backs to it or ignored it.

One spread in Channel & Flow...
One spread in Channel & Flow…


...which folds out to reveal more.
…which folds out to reveal more.

That idea is interesting to me — obviously we are attracted to the idea of nature and what is natural and we want that, but only if it’s in certain ways.

 So, walking along the stream ended up being a fragmented experience. To follow the whole stream, I’d have to walk directly down the middle of it. But even that wouldn’t work because it gets so piped and so basically I’d be crawling through tiny pipes and underneath yards, so there’s really no way to traverse the entire course of the stream.

And that was one of the things I wanted to explore: to what extent can I use a waterway to orient myself within a neighborhood that I didn’t know at all.

AS: I read the interview that you did with the Women’s Studio Workshop, and one part of it was called “Getting Lost with Sarah McDermott.” So I was wondering, what is your relationship to getting lost in the landscape? Is that something that you did often, as a kid, you liked to go explore, or if not as a kid, how does that play a part in your practice now?

SM: Yeah. Well, actually I continue to get lost. I mean, I never really get lost, but I definitely enjoy the feeling of not knowing exactly where I am, but knowing that, you know, I’ll make it out. Just because then you’re really actively engaged with your surroundings. The experience to me of going to a nature center and hiking trails that are completely delineated for you — that is not terribly appealing to me. Because while I’m interested in maps, following a map in that way kind of shuts you down to your experience of being present in the place.

So I like this feeling of wandering. There’s not worry because I know that I’m gonna get back, but it also gives you good thinking time and observational time. I often times will draw when I’m out and about.

I do think that I was given a good amount of leeway when I was growing up just to wander around. I’m impressed that my parents would do that, you know, because I was a kid in the 80s and 90s when it was like, everybody was worried about razor blades being in your Halloween candy and stuff. It seems like now, a lot of people keep their kids in the house and don’t let them run around too much. We were definitely given a lot of leeway in that respect, and so I think it really helped me develop my spatial awareness. And so I feel like I have a pretty good sense of direction internally.

AS: Since making the book, have you returned to Tripps Run?

SM: Yeah, but kind of the way in that everybody negotiates Tripps Run. I drive over it now, you know? I’ll be like, oh! There’s that stream I just made a project about!

I haven’t gotten into the stream, I haven’t continued my project, but I see it as part of the landscape. I’ll drive down Arlington Boulevard and go over it.

….stay tuned for Part II tomorrow!

Highlights from the Call & Response Gallery Talk

One thing is for sure: next year we’ll need a bigger space to hold the Call & Response Gallery Talk.

On September 17th, five pairs of artists and writers from the Call & Response exhibit delivered an engaging discussion of their work to a packed house. The collaborators — whose work is exhibited as part of the “6th Annual Call & Response: In 24 hours, everywhere the dawn rises again” — spoke about their inspirations, their early discussions over coffee, and the surprises that came about as a result of working together in a call and response tradition.

The panel discussion was part of the 2014 Fall for the Book programming. Professor/Curators Helen Frederick (School of Art) and Susan Tichy (English Department) moderated. This year’s panelists were:

Benjamin Brezner & Sarah Zuckerman
Qinglan “Q” Wang & Alice Quatrochi
Rahshia Sawyer & Sarah Winn
Sean Pears & Marianne Epstein
Marcos L. Martínez & Ariel Rudolph Harwick

Check out these highlights from the talk:

Interviews with the Artists

This week Graduate Assistant Ceci Cole Mcinturff interviewed two of the artists featured in the exhibit Women’s Voices/Women’s Visions. Stephanie Booth and Asma Chaudhary, both graduates of Mason’s MFA program in the School of Art, discussed their works in the exhibit and their motivations and inspirations as artists. Four works from Ms. Booth’s series Spinster are featured in the exhibit along with Ms. Chaudhary’s work She’s Got Way Too Many Feelings.

MFA student Ceci Cole Mcinturff interviews Mason alum Stephanie Booth and Asma Chaudhary in Fenwick Gallery.

MFA student Ceci Cole Mcinturff interviews Mason alum Stephanie Booth and Asma Chaudhary in Fenwick Gallery.

As you can see, the interviews were conducted in Fenwick Gallery allowing the artists to discuss their work in the exhibit space.

Watch the full interview here: