Artist Teresita Fernández on the Violent Nature of the American Landscape
Teresita Fernández defies expectations. For more than 20 years, the Miami-born, Brooklyn-based artist has pushed boundaries, literally and figuratively, through her large-scale sculptures, mixed-media works, and high-profile public installations, such as the seemingly illusory “Fata Morgana” in New York City’s Madison Square Park in 2015 and the cocoon-like “Autumn (… Nothing Personal)” at Harvard University last year. Her highly evocative work, at its heart, explores the many complex layers embedded in things—an idea that’s inspired, in part, from the traditional East Asian garden concept of shakkei, or “borrowed landscape,” something she discusses in-depth with Spencer Bailey on this episode of Time Sensitive.
Even if Fernández’s beautiful, affecting art can be enjoyed on the surface, to fully grasp her shrewd explorations of landscape and her exquisite experimentations with materials—from ceramics to charcoal to gold to graphite—viewers must look at them closely and read them deeply. If they do, they’re likely to come away with a greater, and certainly more real, understanding of the complicated colonial history of the Americas, as well as the sublime beauty inherent in so many of the natural wonders around us.
In the lead up to her mid-career retrospective, “Teresita Fernández: Elemental”—perhaps her most ambitious exhibition yet, opening at the Pérez Art Museum Miami this fall (Oct. 18, 2019, to Feb. 9, 2020)—the 51-year-old artist recently came by The Slowdown’s New York City headquarters to share stories about her life and work, from being raised by hardworking Cuban exile parents in Miami to studying for her M.F.A. at Virginia Commonwealth University in a then largely Confederate-proud Richmond. As this interview makes clear, Fernández’s life is as wonderfully layered and complex as her art.
Fernández talks about how an artist residency in Japan in 1998 led to a deep engagement with the culture and aesthetics of the East Asian island nation. She shares her fascination with bonsai trees and the shakkei technique, and draws parallels between Japan and Cuba.
Bailey asks Fernández about a central tenet of her work—landscape—and how she thinks about it. The two go on to discuss everything from Hudson River School paintings to environmental degradation to U.S. immigration and border control.
Fernández looks back at her youth in Miami, growing up the daughter of Cuban exiles. She also recalls her M.F.A. studies, discusses exhibitions and residencies from the 1990s, and goes deep into her art-marking process and approach.
“Beauty is one of the most powerful strategies that we have to affect people,” Fernández tells Bailey. She finishes the conversation by discussing her passion for poetry, as well as highlighting recent works, including an installation last year on Harvard’s campus.
SPENCER BAILEY: Welcome, Teresita, so happy to have you here today.
TERESITA FERNANDEZ: Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here.
SB: On this episode of Time Sensitive, I wanted to begin with the subject of Japan. The reason being that—well, obviously, on the surface, you being a Cuban American woman who grew up in Miami, I don’t think people associate Japan with you. However, it has been a huge part of your life and career ever since you first had an artist residency there in 1998. What is it about Japan that drew you in, and how has Japan become a part of your life and work?
TF: Oh god, that is such a loaded and interesting first question, because I can answer almost anything about myself in relation to it. But it’s also a complex answer. So I would start in an unexpected place. The short answer is that they are both island nations that have very—
SB: Miami and Japan?
TF: No, Cuba and Japan.
SB: Oh, Cuba and Japan.
TF: I think, as a child of exiles, you’re never really from the place you’re born in. You’re always from the place where your parents came from. I really think of myself as Cuban, even though I’m Cuban American. There’s a kind of displacement, a sense of an archipelago-like existence. Even Miami, when I was growing up, had a very sort of island-like quality to it. So your psychic sense of the place is very much tied to island culture, to the idea that you’re surrounded by borders, to the idea that you’re displaced or unique, in this self-contained universe. That’s the short answer.
But I would start by first saying that when I was a kid—in that way that when you’re a child you don’t know how the experiences you have might feed into your life as an adult or your interests. Of course, all children have that capacity to be artists, and to see the world like artists, but I had—I would dig holes; in Miami, you hit water at five, ten inches down.
I also had a pet chicken.
TF: And this pet chicken—my favorite thing to do in the world was to watch the chicken lay an egg. When the chicken would lay an egg, it was amazing, because it was this thing—this orb, this sculpture—that would come out really soft, and then it would get hard before it hit the ground. Which was kind of incredible. The egg was this very sculptural material thing that I was fascinated with, and I always looked at it as a slow sculpture. This idea of a slow sculpture totally fascinated me.
A bonsai is also like a slow sculpture. It’s this thing that’s changing at this radically slow time that’s imperceptible and hard to measure but is clearly your perception. When I first lived in Japan, in my twenties, I lived there for almost a year, I really learned to see. And to understand the world visually by living not just around Japanese things but especially in Kyoto, being very immersed in Japanese culture. In many ways, I think there are lots of parallels, actually, between the universal, global context of a place like Cuba and the universal, global context of a place like Japan. Even though they’re islands. In that very Derek Walcott understanding of Saint Lucia being this tiny little island that contained the whole universe. Both of those places as island nations had these rich, extensive ideas of universality. They’re experienced as this hugeness and this wholeness. I could speak more about how visually being in Japan affected me.
SB: What was your response to the aesthetics of Japan? To the way buildings were done, to the design of things there, to light and shadow?
TF: You have to slow down to understand anything that’s special in Japan, and that’s part of the process. I think, in my work, that’s what I was learning how to do. I was learning to understand that I wouldn’t get everybody. I was interested in—and I’m still interested in—intimacy and in getting those fewer people that can be completely transformed by the quietness of an image, or the beauty of an image. Beauty is another strategy that I use.
In Japan, you will be in—a traditional Japanese interior is very dark, for example. Which means that anything in it that catches the light, like a tiny object that’s gold lacquer or a tiny fleck of reflection, becomes immense. This relationship between the intimate and the immense is something that I’m interested in. It’s not unlike that island and that universe that I’m talking about. That micro and that macro, that acorn and that forest. Which then we can also translate into the individual and society. There are lots of parallels between things that are very, very small and very, very big. Those proportions are very ritualized, but also very respected in everyday Japanese aesthetics and culture.
Everyday living is a built-in thing [in Japan], from what something looks like on your plate, to how you arrange a flower or a group of flowers, to not turning on the lights because it’s so much more beautiful to have whatever light is available, things like that. I learned how to make certain things visually important by making lots of other things not visually important. That sense of visual scale isn’t about physical scale; it’s about how something creates a big, big presence, sometimes by not being loud or physically big.
SB: You mentioned bonsai trees, but I’m also curious about your take on Japanese gardening. You’ve mentioned a technique called shakkei previously. Could you tell the listeners what shakkei is, and how does that relate to your work, to your practice?
TF: So shakkei—at the time, I was actually doing lots of research into seventeenth-century gardens in Europe, as well, but also in Japan. What I was interested in is this idea of the metaphysics of the garden is how you really understand the garden by moving through it. Most people don’t think of my work as figurative, but I think my work is completely figurative. There are just no figures in the work—you’re the figure.
The garden has, in all cultures, always been a metaphor for the universe. Once again, it is a tiny, enclosed—every reference to the garden, from Eden to Paradise, across religions, across civilizations, is always a map, a microcosm of the universe. In Japan, it’s no different. So shakkei, it’s a bad English translation, really, of a traditional technique used in Japanese gardens. It sounds like it means “borrowed landscape”—in the bad translation—but in the more accurate translation it means “to capture alive.” And what happens is, in this sort of darkened Japanese interior, usually there is this real connection between the inside and the outside. There is sometimes nothing dividing the inside and the outside, so there might be a shoji screen that’s open half the time or just not there. Shakkei is really a kind of way of composing real space to create an illusion. So if you’re inside the Japanaese temple home and you’re looking out, shakkei would be some bushes in the foreground, maybe a fence or a border twelve feet away, and Mount Fuji in the background—all composed into a kind of composition that fits into a rectangle of where that shoji screen is missing. It almost appears like a living diorama, in part because there’s no light where you’re standing and the natural outdoor light creates this artificial illuminated glow, which is, of course, just the natural landscape.
There’s no real trick. It’s really just things in real space. Unlike, say, a linear perspective, which is a drawing. It’s almost like if you could imagine a linear perspective in real space done with real things, like a real mountain and a bush in the foreground. It looks very compressed—this idea of foreground/middle-ground/background. And it creates a kind of view. It looks like it’s “captured alive” because, of course, it is alive. There’s a kind of shimmering to it, there’s a kind of aliveness to it that’s really important.
SB: Nature, of course, is a huge part of the culture in Japan, and it plays a huge role in your body of work. How have you explored nature through Japan, through your time there? Have you had experiences in nature there, or at a particular place or site, that have changed your view on how we interpret nature or how we experience nature?
TF: Yeah, I mean, if you spend any time in Asia, you realize the relationship to nature is completely the opposite of our more Western approach. Even if you think of the outdoors and hiking in a Western context—an American context, I should say, rather, because it certainly isn’t that way in an indigenous American context. But in a Western/United States context, the idea of being in nature is always really about controlling nature. It’s about commanding this vista or conquering something. In Asia—and you can see this in ancient Chinese landscape paintings and poems, as well as Japanese ones, Korean ones—there’s the idea is that you are very, very, very small in relation to nature. Smallness can be a kind of quietness. It can be a kind of slowness. Because it requires a kind of humility built into it.
What I learned and what I continue to learn—and I learned this through different indigenous contexts, too, in the Americas; for example, in South America, I experience this—is that the relationship to nature is very different and what it implies, when you realize this, is that you are connected to these universal rhythms quite literally. The ways our bodies work are very much timed to these natural and cosmic events, yet we are so unaware of it because we think we somehow produce it when we stand in front of it. That’s one way, I think, that there’s a very big difference.
SB: Connected to this, of course, is this idea of the landscape and cultural interpretations of landscape. That seems to be something that is a large throughline in your work: thinking about this notion or definition of landscape. What is landscape? Could you talk about that from your own perspective? How do you view the word “landscape,” and why has landscape become something so important for you to explore?
TF: Well, I think landscape is just a word. And it’s a word I use in the art context almost like a foil. Because it’s a word that’s understood to be something very finite, right? It’s based on the history of landscape painting, for the most part. Nobody ever thinks, for example, of a landscape sculpture, or the history of landscape sculpture. Unless they are talking about land art, which is different, of course, and that’s problematic in and of itself. Don’t even get me started on that one.
But our notions of landscape really stem from very, very controlled, fabricated legacies of Hudson River School painting—Frederick Church, Thomas Cole, things that were really fabricated as being what represented “an American landscape.” It was very strategic how that was done. It wasn’t like anyone had thought of the American landscape that way before. At the same time, it erases a whole other existing landscape, right? For millennia, there were all kinds of other things happening here.
My use of the word landscape is really connected to that foil, because people really think of the word landscape as being very passive. And they think of landscape itself as being very passive. So that works for me, because it means I can layer anything I want into it. I could be speaking a very difficult things and very complicated, violent histories and call it “landscape.” And I can get people to participate in the taking apart of the artwork, feeling completely unthreatened by the word landscape.
Every example of injustice and violence in this country—and in every other country, in any part of the world, in any historical period—is about land. And about ownership. Landscape is the history of power since day one of humans, basically. It’s about conquest, it’s about power, it’s about ownership, and it’s about what things get named, it’s about who controls what. That really boils down to the landscape. It boils down to the land. We somehow think of land as different than landscape. You know, landscape is pretty, and land is about rights somehow. But if you fuse both of those things, you start to understand the landscape as the place that is both incredibly, shockingly beautiful and devastatingly beautiful all the time, and also delicate and just riddled with violence.
SB: Yeah, it’s fascinating to me how that word has become mediated, too. Thinking about how casually we refer to things like “the media landscape” or “the art landscape.” How do you feel about the usage of the word? This is metaphorically speaking, I suppose, but it doesn’t really capture the definition or the idea that you are talking about. It kind of actually makes it—to me, anyway—feel somehow muted or basic.
TF: Absolutely. This is how the perception of power is also controlled. But landscape is also the largest Native American protest in history at Standing Rock. And it’s also the polluted water in Flint, Michigan, literally flowing through. And it’s also a mass grave at the border—that’s the landscape. The landscape is not just what you take on your family vacation when you go to the Southwest.
I think we’ve become—I mean, a lot of it is steeped in American exceptionalism, too. In other parts of the world, people are forced to have a different relationship with the land and the landscape because they are threatened by it, because it’s dangerous. Because the landscape is also dying. But also because the violence is harder to hide. I think, in the United States, we have a very sterilized notions of those things so that we can separate this enjoyable, pleasureable idea of landscape into one box and conveniently omit, for example, what’s happening at the border as having anything to do with land or landscape. For me, that is very revealing. For me, real landscape is ultimately connected to people and the history of people. And if you’re creating a view that is so sanitized that the people are not in there, then there’s a problem.
SB: Yeah, it’s not a Bob Ross painting.
SB: [Laughs] I think this idea of how humans impact the land and how in turn the land impacts humans isn’t thought about enough. In fact, oftentimes, as you explained, when we think about the landscape or land in this grand, Western context, we don’t think about the negative implications of how we’re treating the land and how that negativity is coming back at us. And Flint, Michigan, would be a good example of that—of neglect and mistreatment of land and then, in turn, mistreatment of people.
TF: Yeah, absolutely.
SB: I want to use this opportunity to go back to the beginning of your life, and hear a little bit about what it was like growing up the daughter of Cuban immigrants in Miami. Tell me a little bit about your parents and their impact on you, what it was like being raised by them.
TF: Well, my parents left right after the Cuban Revolution in 1959. They left everything they had. So did my grandparents and some others in my family. Not all—many of my aunts and uncles and cousins stayed there. Some of them were for the revolution, some of them were not. Some of them just had everything taken from them, from one day to the next. They lost their businesses, their homes, everything. People just came in and took it.
So my parents left in 1959, and they—and my grandparents, and other people in my family, many other Cuban exiles as well—arrived in the Miami that was basically a Jim Crow South. Which looked nothing like—
SB: Like today.
TF: Like Havana. Basically, it looked nothing like Havana. They didn’t speak the language, they didn’t have an education. My mother was in high school when she arrived, and she never finished. My father also does not have a college education. My parents were not educated, but my father was a voracious reader. And we had this immense library in our home. We had an unheard of five encyclopedias, which he had acquired volume by volume, often in grocery-store promotions. We had a Britanica in English, a Britanica in Spanish, a New Book of Knowledge, an encyclopedia of U.S. presidents, and a children’s encyclopedia called Childcraft, in which Volume 11 was called Make and Do. Everything I ever learned how to do and everything that I ever needed to learn came from that volume.
Miami was a place full of struggling communities that all revolved around this Jim Crow South, basically, which was about white supremacy controlling everything. There were all of these different struggling groups, not all the same. There were African Americans who were completely disenfranchised, always literally cut off in neighborhoods that they [had lived] in. There were points in Miami where there’s not even municipal water getting to these places. There was—and still is, but I’m speaking about that time—a big Hatian community, a big Cuban community, lots of black, brown, and multiple-race Cubans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans. When they arrived, Afro-Latinos and black Cubans were segregated at the time. They were sent to Detroit or Chicago, and Cubans who were lighter skinned were exiled in Miami. There was a lot of tension between differing racial and ethnic communities because everyone was struggling for the same menial jobs. It was set up for them to be vying for the same low-wage jobs.
It was very confusing, and it was—you know, I was called a spick all through high school and before that. Cubans were treated better than African Americans were because they were lighter complexioned in general. They weren’t treated as badly as African Americans were treated, but they were still treated like dogs. Which says a lot about the extreme anti-black sentiment in that Jim Crow South. I remember my mom recalling, when they arrived to Miami as Cuban refugees, that people would have signs outside their apartments saying “Vacancy: No Pets, No Children, No Cubans.” But there were other signs, too, that said “No Dogs, No Negros, No Cubans.” And so, while they were treated better, because they were afforded the privilege of being lighter complexioned, they were nevertheless treated in a very undignified way.
When my parents arrived, they could not find a place to live. It was a very loaded period in the 1960s. This is during a lot of civic unrest all throughout the country, and so Cubans arrived and were completely disoriented because the truth is that race in the United States and the violence with which that white-and-black extreme is interpreted and understood is unlike anywhere else in the entire universe. It’s really like nowhere else in the world, and it was foreign to them, as well as to a lot of other people. So growing up in that was weird, yeah.
SB: Yet, even in the midst of all of this unrest, your dad, your parents sort of landed on their feet. Your father is a yacht builder, as I understand. And as it was defined at the time, this idea of the “American Dream,” he actually was able to kind of grow into that and live that idea.
TF: Yeah, he was—he worked for thirty years in the factory. All of the people in my family worked in the factory, men and women laying fiberglass. So it sounds more glamorous when you say he was a yacht builder, but he worked in a factory, and then, after many decades, he opened up his own business where he used those skills. But he worked very hard. All I remember is my parents working in factories, doing physical labor. So yes, I guess he did well for himself, but he certainly struggled. It was not easy. All I remember is that people of that generation just worked to the bone. They were so focused on giving their children the opportunity to go to college, etc., and just to make a life for themselves.
SB: Did that work ethic come down to you?
TF: Absolutely. I’m definitely a product of that immigrant experience, where you feel a whole lot of responsibility to not take for granted the privileges that were afforded to you because you watched how hard your parents worked. And yeah, I do think that that’s unique. I think it’s something that, for example, my own children—it’s why the lessons are hard to pass down, right? So the thing that I know so well, and I’ll tell my own children, “Oh, you have no idea.” The truth is, they don’t because I have already benefited from the things that my parents were able to help me with, for example. Each generation sort of has its own thing to learn. But I’m definitely very much a product of—you know, I’m a first-generation American with all of the liminal, displaced stuff that comes along with that.
SB: I want to talk about making and art. I understand, as a child, you had a great aunt who worked at a dressmaking workshop, and through that you were able to get access to these scrap materials and make things.
TF: Yeah, only she didn’t work in a dress shop.
TF: So these ladies—my grandmother and all my great aunts—in lieu of going to high school in Cuba, they all signed up for this. There was this woman who had a sort of school in her own home. It was a very upscale thing, and they managed to get into this school, which was a couture school. So they were expert seamstresses. And I don’t know how they got in or how they learned, because it was really like a friend or somebody who helped them and let them in. But they had all these skills, and they were really exquisite makers of things.
When they got to the United States, people like them who could not just sew, but were couture seamstresses—they were working in factories, just like piecing together stuff, really mindless factory stuff the way that so many immigrants in this country do. At some point, this group of sisters, basically, four sisters, were like, “You know what? Let’s just buy some machines.” Somehow—I don’t know how—they slowly saved and bought these crazy industrial machines, and set it up in the back room of one of their houses. This is where I grew up.
So they taught the kids, me and my cousins. We knew how to use these industrial machines, which probably wasn’t a smart idea. We could have lost a finger on them, but we were quite adept at using them. We were careful. They had rolls and rolls of fabric. They basically set up their own business, which they had no tools to do. They didn’t even speak English, but they somehow figured this thing out. There was a demand for something. They had a skill, they had a tool, they figured it out. In Cuban Spanish, there’s an expression called resolver, which is actually a very African idea. It’s a very Cuban Spanish idea and word. It’s this sense of, you have a stick, you make the stick do something that a stick doesn’t do. The classic example is my great uncle in Cuba who was this expert mechanic and could fix anything, all of these old cars. He would basically craft replacement car parts out of things that were not car parts. The idea of “to resolver” is a more expansive concept than a physical solution or a material solution. It actually has much more to do with a sophisticated ingenuity and self-sufficiency and, ultimately, creativity, which I think people of color and immigrants are experts at by nature. You make do, you figure it out, you survive. You just figure it out. If you have a stick, you make the stick work, that’s your tool.
Anyways, so I grew up in this environment where I basically had access to all the scraps. One of my aunts smoked as she worked. Often, the scraps had ashes all over them, because I would be pulling out of the bin. So I just remember making things and that sometimes everything smelled like cigarettes, all my art. But I knew how to use these machines, too, so I could make things out of the fabric. It was a magical thing. As a kid, they had these huge cutting tables that were twenty feet long. And underneath them was my private studio. It was a little room down there, and nobody bothered me. I could build things. I was making installations. I didn’t know that’s what they were, but it was a really magical way to grow up.
SB: How did it evolve from there? I know you loved drawing as a child, and sophomore year in college you took a sculpture course.
TF: Yeah, I went into college as a psychology major because I still had the stigma of, “You better get a job that you can be a real professional at.” As a girl, I think I had less pressure than my brothers did because [my parents] figured I’d marry off or something. And they were very conservative that way. They were Latin Americans, so they had these very conservative views. I was the third of four children. They didn’t care that much what I wanted to do as long as I was out of trouble. But when I went to college I knew right away that I was not interested in psychology. Or that maybe I was but not into traditional psychology-department training. And then I took a sculpture class, and the thing that just opened up the world for me is that I learned how to weld and how to forge metals. I was this very petite woman, in a sculpture studio, often full of men. The sculpture studios were full of all the “big boys.”
TF: I was taking these huge pieces of metal, making them molten hot, hitting them. Any sort of thing that I had pent up inside of me found an outlet. And the ability to take a natural material and understand how it gets transformed and turns into something else—it’s interesting because the title of my mid-career show is “Elemental.” And it really goes to that. It goes to the material intelligence of the element. A basic piece of metal really doesn’t want to do anything else except be a piece of metal. Imposing onto it, and changing it, and transforming it, is just this incredible feeling, to be able to have agency over that and to give it meaning.
SB: I think that we should tell the listeners that you have a mid-career retrospective opening this fall at the Pérez Art Museum in Miami.
SB: We’ll get to the retrospective in a little bit. But, after your studies at the Florida International University (FIU) in Miami, three years later you went to the M.F.A. program at Richmond’s Virginia Commonwealth University. [Editor’s note: Spencer mistakenly said University of Miami during the interview; please note the correction to FIU here.] What was that program like? Did you see yourself on an M.F.A. track or did that come about more—
TF: No, no, I wanted to get my M.F.A. I was very interested in it. I had never lived anywhere but Miami, and it was a great program. I had some really good instructors. It was really weird to live in Richmond, and to live in the capital of the South. In many ways, I felt like my parents must have when they first arrived to Miami. If you don’t fit neatly into a category of black or white in that town, people do not know what to do with you. And I was literally scared sometimes. On Friday nights, I was seeing things that were very new for me. I had a studio on Broad Street in a very old building that’s no longer there. The whole building was like a fire trap. It was very charming and a perfect studio for a young art student. But if I looked out of my window on a Friday night, the scene was high schoolers packed into the backs of pickup trucks going around town with Confederate flags, drinking beer. And that doesn’t go away. We all think the climate that we’re in is new, and it’s not new. It’s always been there. It’s just that people are shocked when they have to see it. They’re inconvenienced when they have to see it, but …
SB: I’m sure Charlottesville [the Unite the Right rally in 2017] was no surprise to you.
TF: No, it has never gone away. It’s always been there. But Richmond was a very strange place, too, because it was very—and I think actually Richmond has changed a lot since then, when I was in school in the early nineties. I think now it’s much more of a progressive place, and it’s more blue. But even with those descriptions, I don’t really know. I think a lot of this is still there. It’s hard to be the authority. And the legacy of Monument Avenue, which is all of these statues of Confederate generals, is—it’s everywhere in that town. And I wasn’t really noticing any of these things when I went there. I just went there because VCU was a great program. And it was a great program for me. But socially, and just the environment, it was a very loaded place. And a place that, unsurprisingly, was very reluctant to change. Or to give anything up.
SB: After this, you returned to Miami. At that stage, did you know that art was your path, that you were going to be an artist, that that was going to be how you made your life?
TF: Oh, I knew way before that. The minute I took that piece of metal and made it red hot and changed the shape of it—that’s when I knew.
SB: Shortly after returning to Miami, you got a show at a now-defunct museum, the Cuban Museum of Arts and Culture.
SB: Tell me about that show.
TF: Well, that was a group show, and it’s not the most important show I did. It might be interesting because it has Cuban in the title. But yeah, I did a lot of other group shows in town, too. There were no real museums in Miami at the time, I think is the important thing to note. PAMM was called MAM at the time, and it really wasn’t the Miami that people know now. It was a very sleepy town culturally. When I grew up there, there were no museums and there was really no contemporary art scene. The place where I was nourishing myself wasn’t in museums in Miami or through cultural activities. It was really the way Miami looks, which is a very, very special place. The light in Miami is very special.
SB: The color.
TF: The idea that you’re just surrounded by water is just a very particular kind of, again, island experience. It creates colors that are just completely unbelievable. I wasn’t really participating in any kind of contemporary art context there.
SB: In a way, I’ve always looked at your work as that of an outsider. You’re not someone who is trying to be a part of—you’re really trying to create something that is distinctly your own. Something that’s your own voice, that’s not a part of a collective feeling or platform, I’d say.
TF: Well, it’s funny you say that because I’ve not been in a lot of group shows, and I agree. I think that there’s a kind of outlier thing that I’m doing. I don’t know why. I’m not trying to do an outlier thing. I’m just trying to be me.
Sculpture is very much the orphan of the art world. It doesn’t have the glamour and grandness of architecture, and it doesn’t have the romanticism that people love about the painter. Sculpture is inconvenient. It takes up space, it’s heavy, it’s hard to make it do something. In my case, what I’m trying to do is make sculptures that behave and feel like films or drawings. That’s hard to do, to make something look ephemeral and to be using new materials to do it. And I’m not interested in optics and science and perception. That’s not my thing, either. I’m not in design. I’m just in this in-between thing that’s sort of like painting and film and architecture and land art and sculpture, and, I don’t know, anthropology all together. But it’s really none of those things.
SB: I can’t help but think about Isamu Noguchi in this context. Because he was Japanese American, so a bicultural artist, sculptor, designer. Somebody who didn’t really believe in defining art or design as this specific thing. And someone who, of course, was heavily influenced from Japan, but also had a distinctly American perspective.
TF: Yeah, that’s right. I think that’s a really good analogy, actually.
SB: In 1995, you had your first big solo show that Bonnie Clearwater helped present, right?
TF: Actually, that wasn’t a solo show. It was a two-person show while I was living in Miami after graduate school. My first real museum show was at the ICA in Philadelphia, and it was curated by Patrick Murphy a few years later [in 1999].
SB: What was the evolution for you? Was there a breakout moment? Or a moment you felt in your own work in the nineties that defined the trajectory of where you are now? I understand you had your first New York show with Deitch Projects [in 1996], and that was a large-scale sculpture.
TF: That’s right, yeah. I was living in Miami for about four or five years after graduate school, but really I was living from—I was teaching a little bit, and I was living from grants. I was applying to everything. So I was doing lots of grants, I was doing lots of work. I didn’t want to move to New York and try to make art. I wanted to make a bunch of art, and I knew that I needed to do in a place I could afford to do that. My time was the most valuable thing. I did about two years where I just did nothing but artist residencies. I went to different places, and one of those places was Japan. I went to Rome at the American Academy, I did an Artpace residency in Texas, and then the last one was the Marie Walsh Sharpe Foundation program here in New York, and I just never left. That was 1997, so I’ve been here for twenty-two years.
SB: Wow, and have you been in the same studio space since then?
TF: I’ve been in the same studio space since 1998.
SB: So almost that entire time, wow.
SB: In terms of process, I want to get into your head about how you approach your work, because one of the things that strikes me, when I’m with one of your pieces, is that, as a viewer, it causes you to slow down. It causes you to really turn inward and position yourself in the context of the work, to understand, almost, “What’s my place in this?” I imagine that, from a process point of view, and even just in ideation point of view, you’re having a similar slowing down. What’s your process?
TF: I think there’s two parts of the process. I would start by saying I’m really private and secretive and very superstitious when I’m in my own creative space. I don’t post pictures of it, I don’t share it with anybody. It’s a really sacred space for me. But the bulk of my process is really research. And it’s conceptual. It’s really writing and reading and thinking about why I want to make something. Once I understand that, I start working with materials.
To me, materials are very, very specific because they are conceptual. It’s not about, how do I take this idea and execute it the easiest way? It’s really about, what material is the perfect material for making this statement? For example, my use of gold. For the last few years, I’ve made a few series with some gold. It’s always a reference to colonialism. It’s always a reference to the Americas, it’s always a reference to the South American landscape, the Latin American landscape. And it’s always sort of buried. Lately, I’ve been using a lot of charcoal, and again, the charcoal is very, very specific. It has to do with indeginous slash-and-burn techniques. Milenia before any European contact, all throughout Latin America, people were manipulating the land, and the landscape, and the soil in highly sophisticated ways that allowed the soil to be fertile and sustainable. That is completely not given credit, because everything that we have done has messed it up. But charcoal was a really important part of that. It’s also this idea that materials are also parts of places. So when I use charcoal, the charcoal is really a tree that burned. It is a landscape. When I do these glazed ceramic pieces, they’re made out of clay that is extracted from a particular place. The glazes on them are minerals that are extracted. They’re all handmade. It’s all very carefully selected.
So it’s almost two phases for me. There’s the conceptual phase, which is very interior. And then there is the material part of that. And when I get to that part, I bring in help from somebody who could help me with a 3-D program. I don’t want to work at that stuff. I don’t want to work at how to make a perfect miter joint. I want somebody to come in and give me this beautiful thing that is very specific, that I can then work on.
SB: In a talk you gave a couple years ago, you mentioned that your process is sort of like mining. Could you elaborate on that?
TF: Well, I like that analogy because so much of my work is about thinking about the landscape as everything we don’t think of as landscape. The subterranean, or the bottom of the ocean, or the cosmos—those too are landscapes. And they are landscapes that influence us in ways that we may not want to be aware of, or that we are asleep to but that are very palpable.
The mining reference is one that I like because it’s also kind of poetic. It’s connected to this idea of seeing and not seeing. It’s more about uncovering. So mining also means that I don’t know what I’m trying to say. This bothers me, or this concerns me, or this feels beautiful to me, but I don’t understand why. The mining process is really one of extracting, so for me it’s this really poetic analogy to think about art-making as a kind of extraction. And in order to do that, and in order to ask viewers to do that, in order to come up with a piece that actually does these things, I have to do it for myself first. I have to go pretty deep into myself as well and figure out who I am in relation to these materials, to these things, and these histories, and everything that I’m trying to say. It becomes very personal and intimate in that process of making. And then, once it’s out, it’s out. It’s a thing that has its own life. But the actual process of doing it really is a kind of self-mining as well.
SB: Yeah, and I think the fact that so much of your work is about these sorts of natural wonders, these things that come out of the ground, and you’re turning them into something else.
TF: It’s not unconnected to this idea that you started with, with Japan and light and shadows. The shadow is also part of that, right? It’s also about the part you don’t see. And the interesting thing about landscape is that (1) It looks back at you. I love that reciprocity. You’re looking at it, but it’s looking back at you, even though you might not realize it. And also (2) The landscape is really much more about what you don’t see than about what’s in front of you. Like this landscape that we’re on right now, where we’re sitting, in Chelsea. We can say this landscape is about the High Line and the new Hudson Yards and all of that. But this is Lenape land. We can’t see that, but this is what it is. It’s an idea that I refer to as “stacked landscapes” in my own terminology. But it’s this idea that in any given place we’re actually in many places simultaneously. Excavating that existence is an act of self-reflection. It’s something that, in fact, would serve us well right now. To be able to truly look at “Okay, who am I? Where am I?” This notion and strategy of understanding who you are in relation to where you are. When every place around you is controlled, named, compartmentalized, divvied up, it’s very hard to actually see where you are. It’s a pretty rigorous exercise.
SB: And then to understand—once you have this idea of who am I—how did we collectively get here.
TF: Who am I? And who am I in relation to other people? And what does that imply for me?
In this moment we’re at, there’s this very overzealous attempt at dealing with—and I’m using quotations here—“diversity,” “inclusion,” “social justice.” These become words that almost get misused because there’s no meaning. There’s no action attached to them, but there’s no meaning attached to them, either. And in them, everybody is very happy to speak about them as ideas that are abstract and outside of themselves. But very, very, very few people are willing to give anything up. The whole notion of participating in any kind of social-justice initiative for real first implies that you have to understand who you are and how you are that thing. And then who you are in relation to other people. It’s sometimes about doing, and sometimes it’s about giving up.
I’m involved in a lot of these conversations. I find that it’s extremely hard for people in these conversations to imagine giving anything up as part of that equation. But it’s a very simple equation that you can apply to anything, from panels at museums to land rights. The idea is that if you really want something to be more equitable, then something has to change. Somebody has to give something up. If you have a table and there are ten seats, and you want to talk about justice and equality, then someone is going to have to stand up and give the seat up so that you can ensure that balance. And it’s very interesting to me that people do not have any issue at all understanding this in terms of biodiversity, or even in terms of their own portfolios, but they have a really hard time understanding that that balance—and that giving something up in order to right the equitableness of it—their own survival is implied in it. Just like it is with your portfolio. That’s why you diversify your portfolio, which is just like why it’s for biodiversity.
SB: I think it’s worth mentioning here that you were a special advisor on a committee to President Obama. Can you talk about that position?
TF: Yeah, I wasn’t a special advisor. I was one of six commissioners on the Commission of Fine Arts, which is an entity that’s been around for over a hundred years. And basically, we just advise the President and Congress on any new things that are going on. So, for example, the National Museum of African American History and Culture when that was going up, the Martin Luther King Memorial, anything on the National Mall, things like that. Things that affect the landscape, the visual representation of anything in Washington, D.C.
SB: What did having a seat at that table mean to you as a Latina woman and somebody who was able to contribute your point of view, your perspective, on that national stage?
TF: First of all, I had a great sense of responsibility. I took the job seriously. And more than anything, I was the person speaking about things from an artist’s point of view. Because the other commissioners were architects, or landscape architects, and so they always came to it from a design point of view. I’d always be like, “What about this historical point, or this idea, or this nuance?” Or: “Maybe that’s not the best thing to visually represent that.” Or: “You can’t change somebody’s words.” Things like that, things that I think were often missed in those sort of nuts-and-bolts conversations, that had more to do with the conceptual.
But yeah, it was a learning process. And I was happy to do it, and to be associated with the Obama administration, which I think really changed a lot of things and showed us how to imagine a government that could look like how the country looks. A couple of my fellow commissioners were also lovely people that I enjoyed working with. [Editor’s note: Committee members during Fernández’s tenure included landscape designer and urban planner Diana Balmori and the architects Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Phil Freelon.)
SB: I want to return the idea of shadows, because a lot of your work has to do with these complicated histories, these conflicts and contradictions we all face as Americans with our colonial past. Is a lot of your work about bringing these things out of the shadows? In other words, are shadows a metaphor in some ways for you, as well as a literal thing you use in your work?
TF: I think so. I think the shadows are formal and visual, and I think they’re also metaphoric. All of these things are important to me, and they feed the whole process and intention behind the work. So I know that they are in there, and I know that they are an important part of the work. But I’m much more concerned with creating things that affect the viewer because they’re very beautiful. And I really depend on beauty as a strategy to seduce viewers and to get them to care about something so that the work is not overtly didactic. Most of my research never comes to light. Like I said, it’s very interior. But the work is political.
I’m very interested in resisting these binary ways of understanding these things. As though, if it’s political, it can’t be poetic, or if it’s beautiful, it can’t be rigorous. Those things are not true. In fact, beauty is one of the most powerful strategies that we have to affect people. To me, the greatest tools are, “How can I influence people’s imaginations, or capture people’s imaginations? And how do I get them to care about something? How do I get them to stop and care about something?” I could then influence them with everything else this is about. I’m not interested in making slogans. I’m not interested in being overt about these things. I don’t think that’s interesting. I could write an essay about that, but that’s not what I’m trying to do in my work. For me, the correlations between beauty and presence and intimacy are not opposite to being an activist or to being very verbal about how I feel about my life as a citizen.
SB: You mentioned poetry. I know that it’s also been a deep interest of yours. What importance, to you, has poetry had on your work?
TF: What’s interesting to me about poetry, more than any one particular poem or poet, is that there’s this wonderful thing that happens in poetry. You have to be receptive to it. So there could be an amazing poem that falls on deaf years. You cannot force someone to feel something in a poem. And yet we all know that we have read poems where we feel like no one else in the world understands us but this poem. But it’s always when we’re receptive. And it’s interesting that we go to poetry, almost as a spiritual need, when we’re sad, or at our lowest, or we need to nourish ourselves. I don’t think people go to poetry for entertainment, for example, because it’s very hard to read poetry in a superficial way. It requires the presence of the reader, and one hundred percent investment on the part of the reader. That’s the kind of viewer that I want, is a viewer that functions like a reader. Where, if you bring one hundred percent, and if you’re in a state where you are going to be receptive to this, it’s going to be there, because I put it in there. And there’s going to be lots to explore and think about. But if you’re in a rush or you want some quick sort of Pop art moment, then it’s just not going to happen. The work could just be not interesting at all if you can’t slow down.
I think that there’s lots of different entry points and levels of having access to a work of art. There’s always the most superficial one, and then you go from there. I do believe the art experience isn’t just about the object or the intentions. I really see the closing of that circuit being what the viewer is willing to invest in that reciprocity. And I’m asking the viewer to give something up as well.
It’s hard to explain, but poetry somehow contains that same sort of strategy, where there are all these words, and they’re not rational or linear. They’re completely abstract. But they create this beautiful thing that you don’t quite know how it got there. It’s this invention, in a way, and this anomaly, and I think that’s what I’m trying to do as well.
SB: It makes me think of some public, or semi-public, works you had in recent years, like “Fata Morgana” at Madison Square Park a few years ago or, more recently, the installation at the Ford Foundation here in New York. What do you hope to achieve with those works? Whether it was with those works or with the upcoming retrospective you have PAMM, how do you want viewers to walk away from your work? Is there an emotion? Is there a feeling? Or is that question just too simple?
TF: It’s not. I mean, it’s a really complex question, and it’s a really simple question, too. I always say that the reaction—the response—that I’m most interested in is the viewer’s intimacy. And that’s not a qualifier. That has nothing to do with whether you like something or whether you dislike something. Both of those are totally valid, in fact. It has to do with whether you felt something—I’m very interested in that. That sense of intimacy on the part of the viewer means that something happened here, and that the work was a catalyst for something to spark. And sometimes it’s slow, you know? Sometimes it’s slow. I’ve had people come up to me after lectures and realize what the work was about. I’ve had people come up to me in tears, understanding what they’re looking at was not just a piece of metal.
SB: Yeah, it’s a slow burn. I mean, literally, in the case of the works you did exploring fire, for me, when I first saw them, I was kind of like, “Oh, it’s fire!” [Laughs] But the more I looked at the work, the deeper I felt about it in the larger contextual picture I saw.
TF: I think I’ve gotten old enough, or I’ve been around enough, that people know to look at my work knowing that there is something else there, and that they need to explore that a little longer, or maybe read the label or something. But they know that my interests lie in “What happened here?” Like, who was here? How does this say something about us? This idea of looking at place, as a way of placing yourself. I think people know that now. And if they don’t, that’s okay.
It’s very interesting, too, with public works like “Fata Morgana,” or the one I just did at Harvard, called “Autumn (… Nothing Personal),” to see people who know nothing about art are often so much more willing to be in that place of that need for intimacy. It’s actually much healthier in them. And they are very happy to feed that aspect of themselves. In the art world, we can be jaded sometimes. I don’t know that that’s how we’re looking at art necessarily when we look at art. I think there are so many other points of validation and qualifiers that we impose on whether something registers as good or bad. Or great or crap. We sometimes miss the point, but in general, it’s something that viewers absolutely know how to do on their own, with no special instruction, with no labels, with no nothing.
SB: Teresita, this is great. Thanks for joining us today.
TF: My pleasure.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on April 19, 2019. The transcript has been edited and slightly condensed for clarity.