An Interview with Artist Ann Wessmann

11.Wessmann_installation 7

How did you come to making work about trees? What was the initial impulse?

To start at the beginning, I grew up in Scituate, a small sea coast town, in a family who valued the handmade object.  Our home was on a corner, with a hedge and 17 trees, which provided a cozy existence. In the summer we went to the beach most days, and there was one particular beach near us that had the most beautiful stones, which we collected. That was probably the beginning of my love of nature and of the observation/collection habit.

 My parents were curious people and when they wondered about how weaving worked, one thing led to another, and my father wound up designing and building a loom for my mother.

When I went off to college, the weaving studio, housed in a beautiful Victorian carriage house, caught my eye and imagination.  I fell in love with weaving and fiber art.  After graduate school I began a 40 year career, teaching in the fibers area of the 3-Fine Arts Department at MassArt. In October of 1981, I travelled with 5 faculty and 70 students to Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, where for 5 days we made works mainly outdoors in one of the most beautiful places in the world, Deer Isle, Maine. This annual MassArt trip to Haystack, which became in a way a pilgrimage, had a profound effect on me.   It initiated my love for making work out of natural materials in the environment.

While my studio practice does not always include natural materials, it is always material based, and materials are chosen for their expressive potential with an overarching theme of conveying the fragility and strength of humanity and the natural world.

Over the years I have continued to collect natural materials and have spent much time collecting, cleaning, sorting, combining and developing large and small pieces.  About ten years ago in the fall, while in Scituate, at my home which was passed down to me, I came upon some horse chestnut twigs with bright orange tips.  They had fallen from one of two horse chestnut trees in the yard and I found them incredibly beautiful and very calligraphic.  From my early childhood, we always collected the beautiful horse chestnuts in the fall, but somehow the twigs were not something that I ever really paid attention to, despite the fact that I have been caring for the yard for a long time. I immediately started collecting them, and have continued to collect them year after year.  It took me about five years to be ready to make a piece. After much sampling, I decided to make a piece called Poem for my old Horse Chestnut Trees as a way to honor the trees that have stood in the yard for so long, and in fact may have been already old when we moved to Scituate in 1953. One of the horse chestnut trees has since died, as have many of the 17 original trees on the property, and also my parents and brother have passed away. In many ways the work is about parallel life cycles and honors not only trees, but my family as well.  A year ago in the fall, when I was doing my annual gathering of twigs, I started to become interested in the chestnut hulls or husks, and then the leaves caught my attention.  I started to collect them as well (this may be an obsession), and just as I said to myself “at least I am not collecting the leaf stems”, all of a sudden they became fascinating as well. It was around this time that I decided to make a body of work focusing on the gathering process, honoring the horse chestnut trees, and in some way all trees, for their value in our personal lives as well as their immeasurable value to the planet.

The pieces in the Center Gallery, Homage to the Linden Tree #1 and Homage to the Linden Tree #2 came about in a similar way.  The Linden tree is growing in a school yard directly behind my urban backyard in Dorchester.  Around 6 years ago while working in my garden I came upon a small leaf that had deteriorated, and was partially skeletonized.  I thought it was quite beautiful and I thought it would be interesting to find more of these leaves and to skeletonize them. I investigated in the school yard and found the tree and discovered that the leaf was really a bract. In the spring the flowers develop on a stem on the bract and later a nut is produced on that stem. I had been looking at this tree out my kitchen window and behind a pine tree for about 40 years. It is so interesting to me, what we notice and what we don’t. Eventually I skeletonized several hundred of these bracts and made an ethereal hanging installation for a show Earth to Heaven at Spoke Gallery.

Again, these linden tree pieces are meant to honor a tree that has been in my life and provided beauty in an urban environment for a long time, but it has been only in the last six years that I have gotten to know and appreciate it on a deeper level.  In an unfortunate turn  of events, this past July as I worked on this piece, I learned that the linden tree along with my beloved pine tree is slated to be cut down in order to expand the school parking lot. I am hoping that this doesn’t happen.

17.Wessmann_Homage to the Linden Tree #1 - detail 4

There is a meditative quality to the work. Is that part of your process when making it?

I come from a textile background and have a textile sensibility in most of the work that I do.  Many textile processes have a meditative component to them.  Weaving in particular, generally builds up row by row in a rhythmic, repetitive and often meditative way.  In other processes such as knitting, crochet and embroidery surfaces are built up stitch by stitch, and so gathering twigs, hulls, or bracts one by one is similar.  I find the process of picking up an object, observing its particular qualities and beauty and then picking another and another and another to be very satisfying and meditative. I am quite focused during this process, although at some points the process evolves into the absurd when I realize just how much material I need to gather in order to create the piece that I have envisioned.

Once the materials have been gathered, a system is developed for the production of each piece.  For example, in Gathering #1, most of the horse chestnut hulls or husks were cleaned, scrubbed with a tooth brush , rinsed, dried and then two holes were drilled in each hull, and the hulls were then threaded onto 12 foot strands of waxed linen thread. Eventually 48 strands were built over a long period of time.  The process itself is a kind of meditation.

18.Wessmann_Gathering#1 Installation photo

How do you want the viewer to experience the work? What do you want them to walk away with after the encounter?

This exhibition is an homage to trees.  The main gallery pieces are poems to horse chestnut trees that have been in my life for 67 years.  The two center gallery pieces are an homage to a linden tree that I have seen out my kitchen window for 40 years.  The materials used are ordinary, often overlooked, raked up and thrown away, but to me they are beautiful and they perform an important function in the life and propagation of trees.  I have tried to create an atmosphere of ephemeral beauty for the viewer, a place where, especially in the center gallery viewers can participate in the piece, and hopefully feel enveloped in a peaceful place. There is so much beauty in the natural world, and while it is strong, it is also fragile.

Ann Wessmann: Gathering: An Homage is on view in the Kingston Main and Center Galleries and Joan Baldwin: Solitary is on view in the Kingston Project Space through December 1, 2019.

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