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Deep Dive with Guggenheim Fellow and Alumna Coleen Sterritt

Coleen Sterritt
Sterritt Sounds Off on Sculpting Beauty from the Leftovers

At the announcement of the 2017 Guggenheim Fellowship recipients, which included Sandeep Mukherjee ('96), Hunter Reynolds ('84), as well as MFA Writing faculty member Marisa Silver, we asked 2016 Fellow Coleen Sterritt ('79 MFA Fine Arts) to share her thoughts on the past year. 

Sterritt is an artist, sculptor, and educator. Her work utilizes everything from plaster and tar, fishing line, found furniture and studio refuse, through which she has fashioned a visual language both formal and evocative. Her material combinations focus on the interaction between the organic and geometric, balance and imbalance, the intimate and remote with the work acting as a barometer for lived experience. And it is her own experience, with almost 40 years of art-making behind her that drew the attention of the Guggenheim Fellowship committee last year.

"Sterritt's sculptures... resemble a three-dimensional journal, each entry/deci­sion following the activity of her mind through a process of accumulation, per­mutation, layering, and expansion," gleaned a recent Sculpture Magazine feature. We asked Sterritt more about her lifelong creative practice, what she has learned, and what she wished she'd known from the beginning. (Hint - be kinder to yourself.) Find out more and see her incredible work below. 

Coleen Sterritt

Green Rondo á la Turk 2015, 77" x 16" x 28" plastic, wood, foam rubber, sea sponges, tape

At the culmination of your Guggenheim Fellowship, what has it enabled you to do or discover in your practice?

I see the Guggenheim Fellowship as recognition of my recent body of work and my art making practice overall so I'm not feeling like it has come to an end in any way. This acknowledgment by esteemed colleagues has been a definitive and powerful endorsement to move forward. That said I've been experimenting with metal casting during this last year, which interestingly enough, takes me back to my undergraduate training.

Your work often touches on themes of balance. What influences your work and how has it evolved?

The natural world as it relates to the manmade has been a theme in the work since the late 70's. I'm interested in both physical and psychological dualities: balance/imbalance, organic/manmade, independence/interdependence, open/closed, separation/union, embrace/entrapment, part and whole, control and letting go. These themes have played out through the juxtaposition of many different materials, forms, and their interplay. The physical relationship between forms, how they interact and what that interaction might suggest or reveal is important. I've continually been enamored with Gaston Bachelard's Poetics of Space since I read it many years ago. He uses specific spaces and objects as metaphors to talk about our day-to-day human existence.

Coleen Sterritt

Tall, Tender, and Extremely Touchy, 2011, 80" x 34" x 24" wood, masonite, found furniture, acrylic paint, adhesive

How do you choose the materials for your pieces?

For the past 20 years or so, I've been working with leftovers: scraps from the studio, discarded older sculptures, garden debris, old furniture, abandoned ideas of one kind or another. My process always starts with materials or a found object with the work evolving out of movement and chance, doubt, discomfort, and desire. I use rather common and ordinary things in my work. I choose materials that have the possibility of transformation, materials that can go beyond their intrinsic identities to form something new. I don't usually look far from home. I don't go shopping for particular items unless it's something like a specific bolt or screw. I really like to improvise. I like to 'work off' something. The old bathroom cabinet from our house remodel became the central component for Vixen where the revealed paint drips from former owners cued my use of color and paint application. Old closet doors became Honey Pile and Tall, Tender, and Extremely Touchy. I also pose problems to solve; questions I want to answer- whether it's an engineering problem regarding balance and attachments or more formal questions that concern issues of space, plane, line, form- I am curious to find my own solutions.

Not long ago I read an article about cooking with leftovers and I completely related to its sentiment -not only in regards to my own cooking endeavors but to my art making process as well. I find beauty in the cast-off, the imperfect, the used, the leftover. I'm looking for the Wabi-Sabi and inventing like a jug band, revealing the poetic of what's hiding in plain sight. It's an inspiring and beautiful way to improvise.

Coleen Sterritt

EAR,near,Dear,Hear,Clear, 2014 56" x 40" x 51" wood, metal, shellac, paint

You have been working in Los Angeles for the majority of your career, what do you think attracts artists and creatives to live and work here?

I moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 1977 to go to graduate school at Otis and moved to downtown L.A. about a year later. I loved the expansiveness and openness of L.A.- and I still do. For me that openness made it feel psychologically less burdened by male-dominated historical issues especially for a woman making sculpture. That's probably why I stayed in Los Angeles - for the sense freedom and openness it provided. And physical space was very cheap! There was no scene in DTLA at that time. The small group of artists who were living downtown created an energized atmosphere that was very inspiring. I first lived on Broadway sharing a 9000 sq. ft space for 3-cents/ sq. ft. I then moved to Seaton St. east of Alameda in 1979. A friend from Otis and I rented 5000 sq. ft. that was demarcated with a chalk line. I was there until 1993 when I moved and took a very long trip to Ireland.

What’s it like to teach emerging artists? Do you find it refreshing, a challenge, both? How has it affected your own practice?

The essence of what I try to do, as a teacher is to connect my students to a love of making and develop an awareness of what's around them. I want them to be in touch with their creative selves on a daily basis and see how one can use ordinary materials as a means of authentic expression. Making art requires an understanding and awareness of yourself and the world around you. My goal is to help open that door. I want to get my students out of their heads, absent of ear buds, into the room with me and take action by thinking with their hands.

Since 1983 I’ve had the opportunity to teach at a number of significant public universities and private art colleges here in Southern California. These positions have included different college levels from graduate programs to community college. I've been head of the sculpture area at Long Beach City College since 1998. When I took the position, which was one of the few I'd ever applied for, it was not my intention to stay very long. I'd been at Claremont for 12 years and also Otis and USC and my ego was extremely wrapped up in the status of those institutions. What I discovered at LBCC is how much teaching meant to me and how effective art-making can be in overtly changing someone's life.

The community college experience is an under recognized gold mine of beautiful, creative, diverse, talented individuals who bring a microcosm of the world, in all its joy and tragedy, into the classroom. Working with young artists continually inspires me and gives me hope for the world. And I am thrilled to share that my LBCC sculpture students have transferred to Otis, UCLA, San Francisco Art Institute, numerous CSUs as well as degree students who've gone into graduate programs at SAIC and Claremont. It's a privilege and responsibility to aid in the trajectory of someone's life and it's been a humbling experience.

Coleen Sterritt

Sexy Beast 2016, 93" x 60" x 75" found furniture, palm fronds, sponges, tape, paint, adhesive

As an alumna of the MFA Fine Arts program, what did you take away from your time at Otis College? Was there a specific mentor, project, or subject matter that stays with you?

I attended both a large, public university and a small, private art school, which proved to be a stimulating combination for me. At the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, where I got my BFA, the sculpture program focused on foundry work and welding. I excelled in those areas and became the first woman shop technician for the department. This was around 1974 and there were not many women making sculpture.

During my two years of graduate school at Otis from 1977-79, I had the opportunity to study under Betye Saar, Wanda Westcoast, Germano Celant, Charles White, and Miles Forst. At Otis, I was introduced to the work of Arte Povera and the California Assemblage artists both of which have been influential to my work. These vastly different experiences informed my creative process and Betye Saar was an amazing mentor as you might imagine.

What is something you wish you would have known when you were first starting out as an artist?

Everything I know now! Seriously, I would trust myself more, be kinder to myself, and make my own rules.

Coleen Sterritt

Sterritt's studio

What is next for you, where do you see your practice going in the coming years?

I'm going to do what I've always done; I'm going to keep working. And seeing that older women have supposedly replaced young men as 'darlings of the art world', I'm hoping to be discovered in the next ten years or so! Of course, by that time, they will be on to something else.

In addition to the Guggenheim Fellowship, Sterritt’s work has been included in numerous exhibitions throughout the United States and Europe. Prominent public and private collections include The Museum of Contemporary Art L.A., The Crocker Art Museum, Scripps College Collection, The Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art, Nestlé USA, and The Capitol Group Companies, Los Angeles, New York, & London. See more of Sterritt's work at www.coleensterritt.com.

Image: Coleen Sterritt working in her studio, photos courtesy of the artist.