I met Los Angeles-based artist Susan Feldman during the hot, strange summer of 2020 when my need for community was so strong that I could feel the vibrations of a kindred spirit even as we labored through double masks and a six-foot separation. The pandemic stymied exhibition plans for Feldman’s mixed media series MOC (My Own City). Completed in 2019, the ambitiously scaled grouping of fifty small structures includes a school, a coffee house, a mediation center, and two beaches (one to watch sunrises and another for sunsets.) Like Feldman’s wall art, the standing assemblages are built from scrap wood, string, Plexiglas, and items from Feldman’s personal collection of ephemera, each blending memories of the past with hope for the future. Ankle deep in her sixth decade, with child-rearing behind her, Feldman celebrated her own creative freedom by building a world where everyone has a voice. We spoke again in the fall of 2021, when MOC was on exhibit at the Rendon Gallery in downtown Los Angeles. —Tanya Ward Goodman
Tanya Ward Goodman How does it feel to finally have MOC in the world?
Susan Feldman It’s so funny. It’s been in the world for a while now. People keep saying, “It’s just so perfect for now.” I thought it was perfect for “now” in 2019, but it didn’t happen then. I finished MOC, but then pushed it all aside so that when and if we came to our senses, I would be able to get it seen the way I want it to be seen. I spent the lockdown getting a catalog printed and ready to go. I made postcards and t-shirts with little hand drawings. I made a soundtrack with songs that are about home and city and town.
TWG “Now” keeps shifting. But it doesn’t matter because you keep working.
SF Exactly. I haven’t worked on MOC for a year and a half. My latest thing is building a time machine. Time isn’t linear, so there’s all different time slots of “now.” I ended up making it the exact size that would fit thru my studio door. It’s approximately three by three by eight feet, big enough for one person to step into. It was lots of fun to make and will be a chance to have a fun experience of suspended belief for all.
TWG It’s a long way from building a city to building a time machine. How did you get there?
SF I don’t plan very much at all. For instance, with MOC I started by making lists of places I wanted in my city. I taped the list up on the wall and would write down ideas as they came to me. When I came to the studio, I’d wonder “what do I feel like making today?” I usually sit on the floor and I have all my shit here and I just start playing and doing. A lot of it just happens. What was exciting to me was how the ideas arrived—I’d be walking my dog and things would just pop into my head fully formed. The school, for instance, doesn’t look like my kids’ elementary school, but I when I thought about my daughter’s first grade class I was flooded with memories of painting with her classmates—we did a whole day on Vincent Van Gogh’s sunflowers—and so I incorporated those into the school. It’s not necessarily the place, but the feeling.
TWG I love that idea because it really speaks to the way memory works. I don’t think I could construct an exact replica of my grandmother’s South Dakota apartment, but the smells and textures—oatmeal, laundry soap, shiny black linoleum in the common hallway, sheer red voile curtains inside—those really resonate. In this way, your construction experience is not unlike writing because you are drawing, in some way, on all of your life experience.
SF Exactly. Building MOC was really cool because it combined my skills: I can paint and I can build. I was able to incorporate my photography, too. That first building was small so it didn’t take up as much space as my other work and because I had so much fun doing it I thought well, I want to make another one. And then I thought I want to make not just another house, but another place. And then a wave came upon me, oh my god, I would love to make a whole city. It’s just like kind of washed over me and what came up at first was “Can I?” or “Should I?” Those kinds of questions.
TWG Those seem to be the questions that come up for so many makers. They can be real stumbling blocks if we let them.
SF To answer the questions, “Can I?” I thought, “Hell yeah, I’m able to. I know how.” But I think I had to give myself permission to feel powerful enough within myself to build a city. I was sixty or sixty-one, and I thought, “yeah, why not?” Because if I don’t do it now, when? This was before the pandemic, so none of us had that urgency vibe that all of people got later. Really, when I turned sixty, I said “what am I waiting for?” and “this is it, if not now, when?” I did a lot of different things—I just started DOING.
TW Did that enthusiastic rush continue as you started to gather materials or did you have a lot of materials?
SF Yes to both. I was on this wild ride for the whole year of 2019. Obsessed with MOC. It just so happened that I travelled a lot over that time and wherever I went, I was thinking about it. I would find things and think, “oh, well this is really cool”. I pick up things anywhere we go. I’m always the one who’s going to have to ship back a box full of shit.
TW What places have you found in your travels around the world or even just across town, here in Los Angeles, that provide a kind of template or vibrate at an inspirational frequency for you?
SF Watts Towers is my first thought. I’m a huge fan. I love going to Noah Purifoy’s place—that holds magic for me. It’s incredible. There should absolutely be more of those kinds of places.
TW Those two examples are definitely in conversation with your work and the way you pull from disparate influences and materials and pile it all together to make a new and beautiful thing. Have you always been pulled by the idea of transforming tossed away objects into art?
SF I don’t know if for my whole life that’s the case, but I just gravitated toward that kind of stuff in the past twenty years. Back when I was working as an art director, I attended this workshop called “Bare Bones” or something, and for a week we were in this room surrounded by all this random stuff. We had to make something every day, but every day, they’d take some of the things away and our work had to show how we felt about the removal of stuff. On the last day, the room was empty and we had to go out into the world to find stuff. I really loved the things I found. I loved the challenge. My thinking changed after that.
TWG How did this realization materialize in your art?
SF When I first started on the work that was inspired by my meditation practice, I was building these ladders and it was cost effective to find wood instead of buying it.
TW I’m so curious about how meditation influenced your work and how it continues to be such a strong part of your artistic process.
SF I’ve been meditating for a long time and I was really getting into it twenty years ago—more so than ever before—and every time I mediated I got this feeling that I had to go up. There was the sense of bursting up through my head and yet there was always seemed to be this string coming down so that I could hold onto something as I went up. I wanted to re-create this visualization in physical form as a ladder. I started finding pieces of wood and wrapping them with string or yarn and just the process of wrapping was very meditative and it seemed like I was getting back to some sort of basic skill. I really got off on that. After doing that for a year or so, I decided to make the biggest ladder that I could. It was forty-one feet tall. I wanted to build it and have a raising.
TWG Of course you did.
SF I didn’t know how that was going to work. I didn’t know if it was going to stand, and I didn’t care if it did. I just thought let’s bring everyone together and have a raising. It was interesting to me to see how people approached it and brought their own meaning. There were some people there criticizing the way it was built, saying it wasn’t going to hold because the foundation wasn’t right. Others were concerned about it breaking. Others were like, “let’s make a plan.” I was just really amused by the thing. Somehow we got it up and it stayed up for a long time.
TWG And was that the end of the ladders? A kind of grand finale?
SF Little by little the work started morphing into something else. I started making the ladders out of yarn and thread and people said, “oh, you’re a fabric artist” and I said no; I was using yarn as paint.
TWG Is it fair to say that the physical ladder, much like your meditative visualizations, provided access to another level of creativity?
SF It’s been a progress. What I do now is kind of a matter of space. I go back and forth—I’ll build structures for a while and when I run out of physical space, I go to wall work. When I run out of wall, I go back to building things. I’ve been doing this for so long, but I couldn’t have gotten to where I am now without all the previous incarnations.
TWG Maybe this is my own issue, but do you ever falter? In my own work, I sometimes stumble or stall when I think, “who will want this or what will I do with it?”
SF No. I haven’t done that in a long time because I wouldn’t be making anything if that were the case. And I’m serious. I don’t have a gallery that represents me and I don’t have anybody saying you have to make this by this date. There’s nobody telling me what to do and so I don’t have that thing, that voice, because if I did, I would be lying in bed all day. Don’t worry about where and how you’re going to show it, just build it. The urge to make it is stronger than any doubt I have about what’s going to happen after it’s made. I feel very strongly about that. I will never let that thought stop me from making something. This thing has to get out of me. Here it comes! The water broke and it’s coming. Now we have to deal with it.
TWG Thank you. I am just going to hold onto that image and keep going.
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