Treasure Hunting in Grass Valley: Elizabeth Dorbad Interviewed

Against a hard, cold, rocky surface, a bright white object glows, absent color.
Elizabeth Dorbad, Marble Shard: Nisenan Grinding Rock, 2021. Photograph. 16 x 20 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Elizabeth Dorbad is an artist I’ve long admired for her immersive installations and her bad-assery in applying old world studio skills like bronze casting. While we met in San Francisco ten years ago, we have never spoken in-depth about her work until now. Over email and video chat, we talked about her incredible solo exhibition Rarefaction at the Center for the Arts in Grass Valley, CA.

By sheer serendipity, Elizabeth and I both currently live in the small rural community of Nevada County—a place in Northern California you may know from the envy-inducing images of Yuba River that flood social media each summer. And as beautiful and hip as the Yuba can be, pandemic social isolation has compacted with our regional isolation, making contemporary art something of an alien world to me. I relished the opportunity to experience Dorbad’s stunning and carefully thought-out exhibition, as well as the opportunity to unpack big ideas with her about the times we are living in and about how art can be a tool of survival. —Serena Cole

Serena Cole Hi Elizabeth. Congratulations on your current show at the Center for the Arts! When I saw you at your opening, you mentioned that because of the pandemic, the show’s timeline had changed several times and the work had gone through some changes. Could you talk about where you started this journey to make the show, and describe the evolution that took place with your work? 

Elizabeth Dorbad Thanks Serena! I was invited to do a solo show at the Center for the Arts that was originally to be a part of the Yuba Lands Biennial, one of only two biennials in the world that exclusively features the work of women artists. My exhibition was scheduled to open April of 2020 to coincide with the opening of the new multi-million dollar renovation of the Center for the Arts. Of course, the pandemic shut everything down and the show was rescheduled twice. It recently opened January 14th, 2022 during this winter’s Covid peak. Strange times.

The work in this show has been a shift toward abstraction. It’s occurred to me that the pandemic and complete overhaul of our social structure has influenced this. I started by gathering scrap architectural stones. I consider these readymade sculptural forms. When I first moved back to Nevada City, I was working in a giant old dairy barn that was built in the 1880s. The large space was architecturally cool but it was fairly open to the elements. It was wet, cold, hot. I needed materials that could withstand water and extremes in temperature changes. I took the stones and made them the subject of a series of photographs and then used them to make patterns for waxes to be cast into bronze. I also started using the stones as printmaking tools. 

In a gallery space with warm wood floors, various rocks figures are arranged around the room, one learning against the wall on the floor, another on a squatty pedestal.
Elizabeth Dorbad, Rarefaction, 2022. Installation view, Center for the Arts, Grass Valley, CA. Courtesy of the artist.

SC Can you talk a little bit more about the pandemic and how that influenced your shift to abstraction? What made you want to pull away from representational objects?

ED The first word that comes to my mind when you asked me that question is “austere.” There was a certain austerity caused by the paring down and social isolation that was necessary during the pandemic. There was the need to resort to entirely new survival mechanisms and a resilience that became required. I made long hikes the most important thing I did every day. I meditated a lot. This new body of work reflects that.

SC How did the impact of Covid-19 shape your day-to-day process of making art?

ED In many respects, the pandemic was challenging for my practice. I moved my home and studio last winter in January of 2021. I relocated to a gorgeous spot just outside of town on twenty acres of land with a west-facing view and a lot of wildlife. My indoor studio is downsized but now weatherproof. Heat in the winter is nice for sure! It definitely helps for the works on paper. I have an outdoor workspace for sculpture.

I think the pandemic provided existential challenges for all of us. Artists suddenly didn’t have a functioning art world. I found artistic community primarily online with friends and my artist clients. 

My personal studio practice slowed down a lot at first, but it’s been back on for a while now. I realized that it was hard for me to create in a vacuum. Show deadlines really drive me to rise to finalize and finish things, the audience matters and engaging in cultural conversation matters. The pandemic made this really clear.

In a vague, blocky "R" shape, a striped grey slab of rock leans aaginst a wall.
Elizabeth Dorbad, Stone State, 2022. Stone. 24 x 21 x 1.75 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
A shard, or large sliver, of copper rock leans into a corner.
Elizabeth Dorbad, Pointed (Of a Remark or Look), 2022. Engineered stone, paint on verso. 47 x 8.5 x .75 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

SC What kind of themes occur/reoccur in your work?

ED The CFA show overlaps thematically with some of my past work but is also a departure. I made some major shifts and I’m still decoding the new languages. A few recurring themes are present in my work. For over a decade, I’ve been returning to a series called “Itinerant Architecture.” To make the works, I harvest sculpture from decaying architecture. I’ve turned abandoned trailers into sculpture. I like to think about architecture as constantly in a state of flux. It looks so solid and seems so permanent but it’s always moving. I reflect on architecture, the passage of time and different types of time: pandemic time, geologic time, the anthropocene. 

Another undercurrent that runs through my work draws from the fact that I’ve lived in very rural locations for extended periods of my adult life. I’ve had remarkable experiences with wild animals. I’ve been stalked by a mountain lion. I’ve had conversations of sorts with coyotes. When I left the country and moved to the city, I began to make work about contemporary definitions of wilderness. Living in the forest during this period of rapid climate change, I think about fire as a force of the wild and as its own wilderness system.

SC You and I choose to live in a place outside the mainstream art scene in Grass Valley/Nevada City. How does living outside of a traditional “art city” impact your art practice? What excites you about living here and what do you find challenging? 

ED I’ve always enjoyed a life that includes time in both the city and country. I moved to San Francisco for grad school and ended up staying there for a decade. I loved SF but it wasn’t exactly easy to be an artist there. I often spent weekends in the country. A little over three years ago, I decided to change up my city/country ratio and now I live in Nevada City. My home and studio are on twenty acres of land in a watershed that brings a lot of wildlife moving through. I love living with wild animals and it is a huge part of the reason I live here. I hike a couple of hours every day. It feels right. 

I do miss living in the middle of the city for the art, music, and general cultural life, and a greater diversity of people. I spent more time traveling to the city before the pandemic. When I’m in the country, I miss the city, and when I’m in the city, I miss the country. In the country I feel like I have more time and space to think and create work, but I need to experience art, culture, and people in cities. When I first visited a museum after the long pandemic shut down, I broke down in tears multiple times. It was kind of dramatic…[laughs]. It was like I was returning to a land where my native language was spoken and I was relieved.

A metallic eye hangs on a white wall; below it, a rounded sandy slab of rock leans against it.
Elizabeth Dorbad, Rarefaction, 2022. Installation view, Center for the Arts, Grass Valley, CA. Courtesy of the artist.

SC I was thinking about how living in remote places forces you to have this grittiness that means you can withstand more. I was also thinking about the contrast of your work in the show. Like, I imagine those pieces are heavy, and I imagine a lot of it was dirty when you were making it. There’s kind of this grit to the materials that’s not obvious in the end result. 

ED Yeah, in this show the appearances are so clean and I go in there and I’m kind of like, “wow.” Work changes so much when it gets exhibited in galleries. I had thoughts with the show to do big installations, but because of the performances at CFA that draw crowds moving through the space, I tried to hold back in terms of “I’m going to do something big and rough and haul in architectural rubble.” They just put millions into renovating it and I was thinking, “I shouldn’t ruin the floor!” It also doesn’t have staff closely watching over the work in the galleries, so it wasn’t a good idea to install anything that might be dangerous.

SC So, is this show pretty site-specific to the clean, multi-use space?

ED To a certain extent, yes. The exhibition is an iteration ten years into “Itinerant Architecture.” It’s pushing my own boundaries and is somewhat experimental using the repetition of images and abstract forms. I wanted to put bronze sculpture on the wall. It was my first time working with stone.

SC One question I had about the stone, and I don’t know if I even want to know the answer: where did the stones come from? Or is there magic in not knowing? It almost feels like you’ve dug up these intrinsically beautiful objects straight out of the earth, even though I know that can’t possibly be how you found them. Especially because you present them as you mentioned, like icons, they have this kind of reverential feel to them. Are you willing to say where they came from, or if you’ve touched them, or is that part of the magic; of not knowing?

ED Well, as far as the use of magic goes, there are usually elements in shows where I try to imbue a bit of magic. The works or the placement will have some mystery or a ta-da kind of moment. So I will say, without divulging where they came from, that a lot of times I’ll be moving through life and junk yards and then suddenly I’ll see these beautiful forms just out in plain view. When I first started gathering the stones, I thought I might cut into them, I might shape them, I might do all these things, but then it was kind of a game, because I was finding certain ones that were totally ready-mades. I started thinking about the history of Japanese suiseki, Chinese gongshi and Korean suseok, the 3000-year-old practice of gathering and displaying stones shaped by wind, water, sand and time. The stones are readymade sculpture that hold shamanic power and can generate insights and prosperity. The stones in the exhibition are a kind of a post-industrial version of suiseki. They’ve been cut and polished but then subjected to a certain amount of breakage and abuse once they were deinstalled from the architecture they were originally mined for.

On a grassy, leafy, black-and-white forest floor, a slab of rock with a gaping eye lays still.
Elizabeth Dorbad, Pipe Stone, 2021. Photograph. 16 x 20 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

SC Do you feel like in all your found object work, is there a sense of alchemy? I think finding things and re-presenting them is about changing the meaning or changing the way we see them. Is that where some of the magic lies?

ED There’s definitely something that’s carried on since I was a kid, it just kind of never stopped— that treasure hunter kind of thing. You know where you’re finding the cool things and then you bring them home, and you transform them. I think I’ve just always done that. Years into doing it I realized, okay well, you can take it, and then transform its life. In the case of the found stones, they become power objects when they’re photographed or used as templates to cast bronze forms. There is a sense of chance occurrence and intentional alchemy.

SC Would you want to present the show again in a different context, in a different place? Specifically, how would it change from being in our rural community to possibly a more art world-specific city?

ED Yeah, exhibitions can really change in different locations. It would be very curious to me to take the show and put it in Los Angeles, for instance, and see what the response would be. I do have more pieces that are currently in progress in this series. I’d really like to get it in a larger gallery, so that the viewer could stand in the middle of a big room and see and feel a sense of sound purely through the repetition and reverberation of image and form. I was truly fortunate to have Ludi Hinrichs, a brilliant local musician, perform at the opening and improvise based on the sculpture, photographs and Rarefaction, the show’s title. I’m currently in conversation with some incredible musicians to collaborate and drop in to a future exhibition of this work. So I’m interested in building on the show and taking it to an urban location.

SC It’s more minimal than some of your earlier work, but it wasn’t a sparse show by any means. It felt like there was plenty. Also I had this, like, just completely sublime experience of being able to go see this exhibition in our community where there is so little contemporary art. Thank you for that!

ED Thanks so much Serena. I loved having you at the show and speaking at length with you about it. It was like getting to water after making it through the pandemic desert. It was important to me to be able to contribute to our local community art scene and support the Center in its new expanded format. I’ve had really good conversations with people about it. I’m grateful to be able to do that here.

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