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The Interior Design of Art: An Interview with Camilla Taylor

KS Keeney

While phoebe is primarily a journal for literature, over the years we have had the chance to feature some phenomenal visual art, and none more so in my tenure than the work of Camilla Taylor, which I was immediately captivated by. With its chiaroscuro color palette and entrancing textures, Taylor’s work is a masterclass in craft and detail. My conversation with Taylor felt like it could have continued for hours, but the highlights of our talk are here. 

KS Keeney: How did you get started with art? What led you to where you are today?

Camilla Taylor: When I was a teenager, my plan was to be an entomologist, which is the study of insects. And I was very interested in art, but it was not what I wanted to do with my life. I was part of the art club, and we did this big fundraiser to go from Provo, where I grew up, to Los Angeles to go to the van Gogh exhibit, up at the Getty. We went and saw that, and it did nothing for me, did not change my life at all.

But then we also visited LACMA [the Los Angeles County Museum of Art], and we saw this installation called “Central Meridian” by artist Michael C. McMillan. And it’s a whole room. A garage made by a hoarder is what it sort of replicates, but he made every little individual thing. So there are little notes you can go in and read. It’s completely immersive. And I thought, if this is what you can do with art, then this is something I have to be a part of. And that’s kind of what made me switch over and decide this is the thing to do. And actually, since moving to LA, I’ve become friends with Michael, which is amazing.

KS: I feel I can actually see that entomology background in your work now that I know, this fascination with pieces and parts and the anatomy of things as opposed to the thing itself.

CT: I think it’s there and I do sculpture and printmaking, in which everything requires a high degree of precision and planning. Yeah, and I hate painting, hate it. I think it’s just because you don’t have to plan, you can just go into it and be intuitive, and that’s not me. I’m not an intuitive person. I like a spreadsheet. I like a plan. 

KS: You have such a broad array of materials that you work with in your art. Did you train in all of those or have you picked up things along the way? Do you use a process for a particular piece, or do you learn something new because you think it might work with a project? 

CT: I trained in printmaking. I have two degrees, a bachelor’s and a master’s and they’re both with an emphasis in printmaking and then sculpture, everything else, I just kind of picked up and figured this is something I’ve got to learn.

And we’re lucky because we’re in the time of real democratization of information and skill. So I just read a lot of books, watched a lot of YouTube videos, and learned how to do it with some mistakes. I primarily just teach printmaking. It’s one thing to know how to do it for yourself, but it’s a completely other thing to know how to solve someone else’s mistakes, and in sculpture, I’m not as good at solving other people’s mistakes. With printmaking, if someone messes up, I know how they messed up and how to fix it, and as precisely and dialed down into that as possible. With my art, I let the piece tell me what it needs to be made in. I come up with a concept first and then decide what material it’s going to be made out of to really fit the concept and let the material communicate that, versus going and just deciding, oh, I want to make something out of clay today. 

KS: You do work in both 3D and 2D, but so much of your work has this interest in texture and the feel of things, even if you can’t actually touch the thing. How do you arrive at those textures? 

CT: I don’t like things that are shiny, usually. I think that’s part of it, and it’s a tactile thing. When you touch something shiny, the roughness and the oils in your hands will cause a friction, and it feels like, even if you’re not supposed to touch it, viscerally, there’s an unpleasantness there. And I always want to think about how someone will interact with the piece either mentally or physically. Collectors get to touch it as much as they want, so they’re going to really feel like a fabric surface or a nice matte glaze. And, much as I prefer it not to be the case, people will just touch things in galleries, and so you have to provide for that as well. What’s going to happen if someone touches this, is it going to damage it? Is it going to add to the experience? Is it going to be okay? That’s something I learned, finally, in grad school. It doesn’t matter how high class the audience is. Someone’s going to touch it, and it’s probably going to be an adult, not a child. 

KS: When you work with fiber, it seems like a lot of times your textiles are reclaimed or found. How do you get those materials and what interests you about finding new materials like that?

CT: If you just let people know that you will take their old sheets, you will have more than you could ever possibly know what to do with, as I do. And a lot of my ceramics are also made out of reclaimed clay, but it’s not as evident in ceramic. So it’s not hard. People have so much fabric in America to get rid of. I like the idea of the haunting of material, that when there was a previous owner, there’s almost this history imbued into it, that it lived a previous life, that it now continues as its new incarnation, the cycle of decay and reuse of materials.  

I’m actually working on a project right now where I’m finding old handkerchiefs, and I’m going to put etchings on them. So you’ll see the embroidered borders that say, like “Kathleen” on the handkerchief with an image in the center. So you see all of that history as part of it, the little stains left behind from someone’s life. I like the history, and you know what fabric feels like, so I think it having history helps that, too. It almost becomes like a hand-me-down then, the borrowed sweater.

I did a whole series of small sculptures before grad school, like fifteen years ago, where I would find individual pieces of clothing and then I would make one sculpture out of that piece of clothing that would be small, that was informed by where it came from. 

And then it was weird when people would come into the show and see how I interpreted their object that they got rid of. That did become personal, to an uncomfortable degree, so I don’t really do that as much anymore. I don’t want to have just an audience of one for each piece.

KS: Thinking about audience, phoebe has a significant literary component, so our readers may want to know how you approach writing about your art, either for publications or for galleries. How do you think about your own work in a way that you can deliver to other people?

CT: It’s really hard, actually, and everyone who goes into visual arts, we don’t do it because we’re really good at writing, usually. I’m a voracious reader, but I’m not a great writer or a comfortable writer, I guess. But then I came to find that I’ve yet to meet a writer who is; it always seems kind of painful for everybody. Is that true? 

KS: Yeah. A little bit. 

CT: Yeah. I try to start with something universal, this concept I’m trying to bring about or try to talk about in the work, and then drill down on a specific event in my own life that it’s referring to. It’s always hard because I feel like writing about visual art shouldn’t give up so much, but people want that. They want things to be as explicated as possible. So much of my work is about withholding and the viewer knowing that something is withheld from them. It’s hard to figure out that in-between, between giving up too much information in the text and giving too little, so that people aren’t actually informed when they read it.

There’s this piece that most people, they walk into the gallery or the studio or wherever, and then they just see a head and they keep walking. But inside of it, it’s hollow, and if you spend time with it, you find that there’s this tiny figure that sits inside of the head. And most people never discover the little figure.

And for me, that’s really important, that most people don’t even get to find it, because it’s all about letting the viewer and the audience have autonomy, trusting them to find it or not to. That people get to decide not to spend time with work. When you write about it too much, you kind of take that away. Before I showed this piece, I told the gallery not to post any pictures inside of the head. I wanted the full run of the exhibit to be without that information accessible, unless they saw someone else in the same space, discover it. And it’s positioned so it’s not easy, you have to invest the time, like two extra seconds, but you don’t know if you’ll be rewarded for those two extra seconds and that’s sort of how everything is in life. You don’t necessarily know if this is going to be a rewarding experience or not. So then if I choose to write about that, it’s hard to control this kind of exchange and the difference between telling someone of an experience and letting them have the experience.

KS: I wanted to talk to you about the pieces we’ve featured in phoebe. “Comfort of a Story Repeated,” this figure wrapped in embroidery floss, was that part of a larger collection or was that a standalone object? 

CT: It’s from an exhibit that I had in December last year called “Your Words in My Mouth” that was about the experience of lying, of using words to shape other people’s experience of reality. The title refers to when you lie, you’re telling someone else’s story, right? We don’t know whose story it is, but you’re telling a story that is not your own. “Comfort of a Story Repeated” is about the experience where this fiction about yourself becomes comforting, it keeps you warm, it gives you a place to live that you know, but it also becomes a prison in some ways and restricts you from leaving it. 

I grew up in a small town in Utah and one thing I love about being able to move away as an adult to the big city of Los Angeles is all of those stories about me are ones I no longer have to experience, but there’s also kind of a terror of no one has a story for you anymore because they don’t know you. So there’s formlessness, no identity, when people don’t have any history. 

When I showed it, I had two interactions with the piece that were on either pole of importance, but were really interesting to me. The first was a teenage girl and her mom came in and saw the show and I told them about the piece and the girl said, yeah, it’s like, how you still think pink is my favorite color. And the mom said, it’s not your favorite color? And she said, no, I’m seventeen. It hasn’t been my favorite color since I was six. So like that inability for you to grow up to your parents. 

But then a group of students came in, and one of them was my former student. And when they were in my class they were still presenting as a man, but they’re a woman and now they’re out. For her, it was about how easy it would’ve been for her to continue living her life as a man. Even in Los Angeles, it’s very difficult to come out as trans, but that was still a prison for her and how there’s still a formlessness in experiencing her gender in a way that’s very public, as opposed to just continuing with this story, that her family was very comfortable with her experiencing and presenting as, versus feeling authentic and living her life the way she wanted to. So that felt like the other end of the spectrum of life importance than the color pink. 

KS: I love the composition of the photograph for this piece, did you take these or were they done by the gallery? 

CT: My gallerist, Sean Meredith, who runs Track 16, took those photos for me. And he does such a good job. He used to work in television, and I think it’s evident that he has that background in film and photography because they look really fantastic 

KS: A really cinematic composition. And I love how in the photograph you can get this almost sketchy texture of the sculpture itself. It’s really detailed and well-formed, but there’s a roughness to the material that means you can almost see your hand working it. I love that about the piece. 

CT: Thank you. Plus black on black is really hard to photograph, and he did a great job. 

KS: That was another thing I was impressed by, how that contrast was captured, because as someone who wears a lot of black on black, that texture contrast is always something I’m interested in.

CT: Always hard to match the blacks to the blacks.

KS: I know you do the black to keep some of the contextual and cultural questions that color brings out of your art. Additionally,  a lot of the forms that you work with, outside of a couple of specific figure drawing things, there’s an androgyny there. There’s a sort of abstract humanness that I think allows the viewer very easily to map themselves or map whatever they’re interested in taking away from the piece onto your work, and I think that’s one of the appeals.

CT: A couple of people have assumed that I’m a black person from my work. And I think that is wonderful, and I try not to be misleading, but I like that there is enough lack of specificity.  When I was in grad school, half of my thesis that I wrote that went with my exhibit was about the convention of the cipher protagonist and pulp fiction. Where they tell you just enough that it becomes you, but there’s enough there that it’s interesting. 

KS: The other piece in our print issue is “Reflection.” I’m assuming it’s a print of some kind, but it feels, all your work feels obviously handcrafted, but this one feels the most drawn. 

CT: It’s sort of painterly, yeah. That one’s a monoprint and the way that’s done is I roll a layer of ink onto a piece of plexiglass and then take a rag and selectively wipe away the ink, then put a piece of paper over that and run it through the press. So it’s almost like carving away, it’s a reductive process, but because of that, you can really see all of the hand marks and tool marks as I create the image. And just one is made, hence the name of monoprint. That one is from the series that I made a couple of years ago called “The Mirror’s Deception,” which the whole show kind of dealt with the way memory is deceptive because our memory is so malleable, every time that you remember something, you change it. That the only way we can refer to ourselves is through this kind of formless material. 

When I was young, I had a traumatic brain injury and developed a near global amnesia and my personality changed. And I don’t really have memories from before the accident. I wasn’t old enough for it to really be a significant thing. I was seven. A lot of people have no memories from before that age anyway. But my personality completely changed. I became a vegetarian for the first time at seven, which is kind of weird in a non-vegetarian family, and my interests changed. I hear stories from people who knew me beforehand, about how different I was and what a different person I was, and then I kind of created these memories from their stories, even though I know there is physically no way for me to remember anything from that time. 

Two of my good friends are architects, and they have this perfectly round swimming pool in their backyard. It’s so beautiful, and I emailed them and asked if I could have an art show in their garden and they said yes. So I had sculptures installed inside of the pool and the idea of the pool being this imperfect reflection as the metaphor for a memory. One of the pieces in the show, I made a whole, I think it was twelve or thirteen, heads that I tried to make look identical as much as possible. So each individual one looked very similar, but each one was handmade and the idea was kind of trying to reform yourself each time and all the different types of self you could be. 

KS: Another piece we have from you is the “Awkward Gesture” print, with an arm going like this [attempts to mimic gesture], which is indeed an awkward gesture to try and make. Is this another monoprinting, or is this a different type? 

CT: This is a type of print called a dry point, which is an intaglio print. Where I scratched into plastic and then rubbed ink into it. Then I let the ink sit in those recessed lines, and then that transferred to the paper. I’m really fascinated by unconscious gestures, when you’re doing something that makes your body uncomfortable, but it’s mildly unintentional, when part of your conscious mind is no longer quite paying attention and another part of yourself is taking over. 

I use this metaphor a lot: the brain is a house and our conscious self is the living room, the front facing room, but so much of who we are is what’s going on in the upstairs bathroom or in the attic, those spaces we don’t really go to or try not to show to people. And so what part of you is making you uncomfortable or causing you pain and maybe what are you trying to distract yourself from.

KS: The two chair prints, “Memory” and “Circle”, it’s a very mundane piece of furniture and especially the ones that you sent us are these metal folding chairs, one of the most commonplace objects. So why the chairs, and these pictures in particular? They’re very stark versions of an already stark chair. There’s very little background. 

CT: Yeah, there’s no space specified that they exist in. I started working with chairs with this piece I made two years ago called “One to the Other,” where I made 120 unique, tiny chairs and, love a spreadsheet, made a spreadsheet to keep track.

The piece itself is all 120 of the chairs, but it’s only this [about arm’s length] big because each chair is very small. There are twelve people in my immediate family, and it was about the experience of a family gathering, where everyone has a space to sit. And it’s not necessarily a comfortable space but you have a space and a place that you were put and the chairs kind of stand in for the absent person, both inferring that they’re about to come and that they have left, this kind of liminal in between waiting and the aftermath.

Then I started thinking more specifically about types of chairs. So all of those were different and primarily dining chairs, but folding chairs being this universal thing that means something very different to everybody else. And to me, they mean church. I see a group of folding chairs and I think this is a religious event very specifically. I grew up Mormon and then in a cult and, [the chairs] don’t feel comfortable to me. I think it doesn’t look like a thing I want to join, but then I like how inspecific that is still. The circle of chairs to me looks like a religious gathering very specifically, but other people see it as like an AA meeting and they see it as like a place where they’re comfortable and welcomed. Then what was interesting to me is how many other people saw that as like, that looks like Catholic Sunday school, or that is a Methodist meeting, that is exactly what they saw too, something so specific to this place that you kind of have to be for a period of time and then the memory of that experience. 

So I made them, and then this last semester, I was an adjunct at Occidental College, and like half the classes were taught outdoors to avoid COVID infection. And so there were just folding chairs all over campus in different configurations. It has changed the way I have seen them, because I’ve been seeing them everywhere for the past six months, when beforehand, I never went anywhere where there are folding chairs.

I like being very controlling in my work, you may have noticed it’s all kind of stark, fairly spare and there’s no color palettes, it’s all black and white, and I like to control as much as possible. playing with the folding chairs was kind of trying to let that go a little bit, using a symbol that is just so open, but still heavy with meaning for nearly everybody who comes across it. 

KS: You have these other prints of more specific chairs, you know, dining room or ladder back style chairs, from the “Words in my Mouth” exhibition, and it’s immediately, even though some of the images are similar, it’s such a different conversation and it’s such a different image in comparison with the like folding chairs.

CT: These different kinds of dining chairs, they talk about class and cultural upbringing, whereas folding chairs that is anybody. It’s at a country club, could be at a church, could be at school, who knows. 

KS: I was looking at your series “A Conversation,” with all the individual prints that you sent to people. How did you come up with the individual images that you put into these prints?

CT: So each little symbol was like a little story from my year during lockdown in LA. At some points during that year, we were not even supposed to leave our house and, it wasn’t like it was being strictly enforced, but it was more socially enforced and missing actual conversations with people where you just sort of go through the mundanity of what you’re experiencing.

So each little symbol is sort of a stand-in for one of those events or one story that I would want to tell and they’re individual linocuts, so we can think of them sort of like stamps. Then when I made the prints, I would do an assortment on each card without any repetition.

So each print was different, the way each conversation is different, and then I chose 105 people that I would have hoped to have had a conversation with during that time period and sent them one. One thing I really liked was when people would call me after receiving it and then tell me what they thought they meant, and they would turn it around.

They would say like, the mouse is because we did this and this. And then you sent me this because we did this and this, forgetting we haven’t had a conversation in a year. I have no idea that they did that. But I really liked how what was really just a very personal symbol, because it’s spare enough, becomes adopted by other people. The Greco-Roman head is the goddess Hygieia, who was the goddess of hygiene and health, given our obsession with hand-washing, you know, hygiene theater, cleaning every surface all the time. 

KS: The one hand with the dot shading, is that from something? 

CT: I just like a stipple. I love a stipple. 

KS: I found that interesting, because it’s so different from the other hands in the project.

CT: Yeah. It’s got an ear that’s also stippled. Just different iterations of the same thing, the reaching out, but being incapable of going forward, and then the gesture that feels like, is it welcoming or is it stopping you? 

KS: You’ve talked about your sideways interrogation of the place that Mormonism and religion generally had in your life growing up. I’m curious about how you see that reflected in your work or if you see that reflected in your work.

CT: I think it is and more recently I’ve tried to be less coquettish about it, a little more open. I have always been an atheist or at least since the accident, as long as I have conscious memory, I’ve never believed in God. So I always feel like I was kind of a voyeur in religion where I had to show up, I had to be present, but I was never really interrogating, is this for me or not? I always knew this was not for me. But what are these people doing here, and why do I have to kind of go through the motions of this experience? So in a sense, there’s almost a lack of personal investment, but then the personal investment is in the cultural mores of that kind of an upbringing. 

I made a book and wrote a poem that was specifically about this. The book itself when closed is literally this big [about the size of a matchbox]. So you can just hold it in one hand. I wanted it to feel very small and precious and like a thing you could easily destroy. And it’s using a binding called a Coptic binding, which is what the early Coptic Christians used to make their scriptures. It’s a type of binding that was specifically reserved, for a time period, for only holy books. The poem on the inside is written in English, but using the Deseret alphabet, which was invented by the early Mormons when they first were trying to make their own country; they were trying to secede from America and become the Kingdom of Deseret. So it’s a phonetic alphabet. You can write any language that they knew of at the time in Deseret, and I can write in Deseret. So I wrote this poem out in Deseret, and it’s about the desire to share my experience with people and that so much of the strange experience of being Mormon and then my mother starting a cult informs a lot of what is interesting to me, as well as, when you share so much, what are you left with at the end? 

The title of the book and the poem is called “to nothing,” and that’s the last line in the poem. And then, going back to the beginning where I talked about how I want things to withhold a little bit, anyone could transcribe this very easily, it’s in English, it’s just a different alphabet. And the Deseret alphabet is available online. It’s not like a secret, hidden thing. Lots of people have wanted to buy the book, but have asked me to give them a translation. I’ve said, no, that destroys the art. The whole point is you have to want to do it yourself. And so far, no one ever has. That’s okay, I don’t know that I would either, but I think it’s interesting that someone is interested enough in it that they would want to own it, but not to put forth like fifteen minutes of effort to translate it.

And if you translated it, it wouldn’t change the way it sounded and when I write, I don’t think I’m as informed about the conventions of poetry, so the layout of it does not matter nearly as much to me. What’s important to me is this other engagement with texts that we have. To me, it feels like physically painful to see text and not try to read it, even if it’s going to be stupid. I’m interested in that pull of when you recognize something as text, how you just want to know, and it becomes this itching in your brain to know, and then to not satisfy it, withhold a little bit.

Camilla Taylor

is recognized for her monochromatic and intensely introspective works on paper and sculpture, which utilize figurative and architectural forms. Taylor’s artworks reflect the viewer’s internal lives as well as collective issues we experience as a society. An accomplished artist exhibiting in traditional gallery spaces, she also creates installations in intimate and unusual locations, such as site-specific works in a swimming pool, desert garden, and other locations. Raised in Provo, Utah, Taylor attended the University of Utah and received a BFA in 2006, and an MFA from California State University at Long Beach in 2011. Taylor lives in Los Angeles, CA, with her partner and 3 cats, and can be found at camillataylor.com

KS Keeney

is currently an MFA candidate in poetry at George Mason University. They also received an MA in Film Studies from Ohio University. Their work has been previously published in deComp, Quaker, Tishman Review, and Roanoake Review, among others. Currently, she is working on her thesis, an exploration of fashion, desire, and the body. You can find her on Instagram @keeneykate.

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