A dialogue with Helen Frederick

Cynthia Wayne, September, 1994

Understanding the work of Helen Frederick requires that one approach her images as a a collective experience of carefully selected materials and social and spiritual metaphors translated through her own personal imagery. Deeply embedded in her subject matters is her awareness of history, of time, and of the artist as visual historian. She creates her vocabulary by working with the materials of papermaking that are themselves several thousand years old and by a process that is defined by a ritualistic tradition, With these materials and processes as her tools, Helen records nature and personal experiences gathered in the course of her daily life – whether in her immediate environment, in her studio, or her travels abroad.

WORKS FROM SOLAR HOUSE represent the most recent stage in the evolution of Helen’s long-term investigation of collective experiences. The works were conceived during a one=month sabbatical spent in Taos, New Mexico in January, 1993, during which she worked and lived in a small dwelling, a solar house. Located in the mountains outside of Taos, the space was completely dependent on solar energy the unique structure of the studio space and its direct relationship to the physical environment created an unprecedented working context for Helen. The primacy of light, temperature and sound forced her o confront a number of personal and artistic issues in a completely different way.

The Solar House, thus, has become a metaphor for the many challenges Helen has recently been addressing as an artist.

In WORKS FROM SOLAR HOUSE, the installation, Windmill, Fire and Trough, consists of a series of drawings on large-scale artist-made paper. These stand before a triangular configuration of buckets holding carefully selected natural materials. A predominant image throughout the drawings is a grid-work of circles, their repetition creating a strong, steady rhythm running through the piece. The circular shapes also create an optical illusion of depth, the repeated rows appearing as a second layer of skin over the textured, handmade paper. A strong multi-dimensional quality augments the physical and rhythmic nature of the piece. Floating on this grid-work, the intensely colored organic forms and symbols of natures force, such as the windmill and fire, interact with the natural materials collected in the buckets and embody Frederick’s narrative.

Cynthia Wayne (CW): Can you describe the situation at Solar house and how it affected your work?

Helen Frederick (HF): in the Solar House I experienced a renewed awareness of nature and myself – a gathering of internal information. The high elevation of the house in the mountains created a sort of echo chamber, intensifying the experience of sound. The Solar House was all about sound as well as light. The sense of scale in hese mountains chanfes your perceptions – emotions arise and diminish, like offerings – the past months of fears, workings, confessions, disappointments, accomplishments fall away into the embrace of the space, sky, light, sound.

You can see and hear movement and sound from far away places; color has a certain pitch.

The differences between the inside and outside environment made the Solar House a pressure cooker; I felt that pressure physically as well as intellectually and the situation was demanding. I had to work with a new sense of humidity control: intense cold on the outside separated by a thin pane of glass with intense heat on the inside; a lot of condensation was produced.

I was immersed in dramatic physical reality. There were times when I could feel the hot and cold simultaneously. At night I was uncomfortably cold and in he morning I would need to stretch and unfurl. There was this observation of volatile shrinkage, as an ongoing, ever-changing condition. Within these extremes of hot and cold, I found myself noting in detail certain changes from moment to moment and these remembrances came forth in the drawings.

I also experienced a limitless sense of time, an opportunity for reflection, contemplation and watching. Inside the Solar House, the flow of time was realized by a sharpened awareness of breath, heat, heartbeat and movement in space – experiencing the present. Everything was reduced to the basic elements around me and I could observe myself using air, heat and water in new ways.

Architecturally, as well as environmentally, the Solar House demanded certain restrictions. These restrictions opened new doors in my working with wetting paper for drawing and restraining it during its drying and transformation. The floor made of flagstones restrained its coolness from the night. As the air became hot above it, I could use the flagstones to restrain the papers to a flat surface and use he hot air to dry and encase very special materials. Application of many washes, pearlescent pigments and acrylic shrank beautifully into the surface, providing new fields of color and scale for my drawings and new resonance for my thinking.

I think, then, of this period as a fusion of experiences: space/sounds; hot/cold; wet/dry; windy/still; brilliant/cloudy; dense/fluid; silent/renewal. The Solar House affected for me a new shifting of activity, working and thinking in patterns, and handling of materials.

CW: How is the process of papermaking, which you have employed in many situations before, incorporated into the body of your work?

HF: A very important idea behind papermaking is process as ritual, as Zen-like activity, physical repetitions of chopping fiber, carrying water, forming sheets. Papermaking is about the materials, but its also about the mental practice, this dicscipline, that perhaps you are born with as part of your culture, or that may be brought to you, discovered/equated/learned along the way.

Without this discipline of papermaking, I don’t know if I would be making the same images. I couldn’t be apainter and be doing quite the same thing. I don’t think I would have gotten to the same base from which I am now working. The Solar House, by its particular relationship to one environment, magnified my history in the “sub-tropics” of Washington, D.C. for the past 14 years. I was not aware of how dramatic a role climate plays since I have been conditioned to accept a certain set of barometric pressures. The solar heating conditions pressed forth new visual investigations not tried previously.

CW: Your work has pushed the boundaries of the paper medium, exploring its cross-disciplinary possibilities as well as further defining paperwork as a fusion of both image and support. Recognizing the physical challenges of your Taos workspace, and the pervasive qualities of the natural environment, how do the works created there – your installation piece Windmill, Fire and Trough and the associated drawings – relate to your earlier works in both process and imagery?

I carried the paper I would work on to New Mexico in large rolls. The scale of the paper, eight feet by four feet was made to accompany my body scale. I had made it for an earlier installation piece exhibited in the Fourth International Biennale der Paperkunst, 1994, at the Leopold-Hoesch Museum in Duren, Germany. So, the paper had already been performed upon; it was fresh, but active with memory.

The predominant image in Windmill, Fire and Trough is the windmill, an image that I have worked with before, although it assumed greater significance during my stay in the American Southwest. In New Mexico, the windmill has been a prevalent means of generating energy. Its form looms over the landscape. In my work the windmill represents a source of power, a symbol of preservation, as well as movement, that creates fire. It embodies for me the ever present balance/imbalance in nature.

The images and ideas that are explored in this piece have history with me-I have been dealing with the elements- fire, earth, air and water- for some time in my work, as well as with the ideas of simultaneous physical and auditory space. Many of these ideas came together, though in a different way, at the solar house, where elements of nature and space were such pervasive forces that they inherited new meaning.

CW: How did the “physical reality” of Solar House relate to the materials with which you work?

HF: I developed a new awareness of how nature identifies with the body and how the body collects these elements and is transformed: drying, absorbing, shrinking and retaining. The body becomes a reservoir of actual memory, physical as well as intellectual. Over the years it becomes a vessel for an “ethics of labor” / artist as worker. By that I refer to the history of women’s work or woman as gatherer and papermaking as cottage industry using the fiber in all it’s various stages: sowing the seed, harvesting, cleaning, cooking and preparing the fiber into paper. What a narrative vehicle the body is! It collects memory and probes/intellectualizes and presses forth transformed information. Making the work of art is a gesture of affirming pain, mourning, joy, change, etc. The body’s corporeality and affliction is one with that of nature.

I see the artist organizing meaning by rites of ceremony. The artist transforms observations into new material forms and actualizes time and materials together to reach new meaning. Images are memory in its most integrated visual form.

CW: We have already discussed how the materials you traditionally use were specifically affected by the Solar House environment and experience. I would be interested in learning how the underlying motivations for the installation piece Windmill, Fire, and Trough, as well as the prevalent motifs which you explore in your work, such as the systemic use of circles and the configuration of the buckets, acquired their current levels of meaning?

HF: The basic idea of the installation is the Tetrakys, originating in Greek Pythagorean philosophy involving the belief in numbers as the ultimate elements in the universe. There are usually ten elements diagrammed with a space for an eleventh; my adaptation of that diagrammatic formation came out of doing it in two dimensions and probing another dimension, as an outgrowth of eastern philosophy. I was collecting natural elements and making them actual. With the direct experience in the Solar House- I also became part of the diagram- experiencing a place of refuge.

The buckets, a common means of transporting materials in the papermill, are used in this piece to carry materials such as seeds, salt, water and ash.

The repeated system of circles in the installation and accompanying drawings has several implications. They imply making order all by hand, repeatedly. Therefore, to me, each time I put down the circle, it is a pre-industrial experience- symbol for handwork: sowing seed by hand, sifting, carrying buckets, beating the drum, so to speak. It’s a personal experience of passage of time. On another level, the systemic use of the repeated shape implies determination of larger time. The circle moves from being the top shape of a bucket of water, for example, to being an instrument of censorship or commerce, when I add a line through the circle. These elements in a larger mosaic field of repeated circles have more visual power and meaning. Am just now creating a series of etchings that use the circle as a seed pod overlaid on coins, i.e. nature and commerce.

There is an interesting element of determination in using this system of circles – they are decidedly timeless elements. They lay the groundwork for narration and distilled audio sensibility in my mind, since a compressed system of these spatial discs gives a visual frequency and have prepared many sheets of paper with just the circles awaiting the moment of their overlay.

CW: Your work seems to be a paradox; while it is quite accessible on some levels, readily drawing the viewer in, it is really quite complicated. It is full of surprises in the confrontation of some very difficult issues. You have said that it is really the process, this ritual of manipulating paper in its initial formation that has been the driving force, allowing you to work through ideas and images differently than you could have with other media. What are the factors which will bring the viewer to greater understanding of your work?

HF: The most readily accessible element of my work beyond references to nature is a sense of place, that is, a workplace of enduring memory. My studio, or extended studio as I often refer to it, is really a critical influence on my work, for both physical and narrative reasons. I choose a workspace that is going to be flexible as an environment just as I choose to work with materials that are malleable, and I work with the boundaries enforced by that working environment. Thus the quality of light, temperature and

HF: I developed a new awareness of how nature identifies