A finalist for the inaugural Foundwork Artist Prize, the artist Julie Schenkelberg is known for creating large-scale assemblages that invoke the cultural histories of Midwest cities. Fashioned from vintage fabrics, mass-produced dinner and tableware, and wood from burnt-out, abandoned buildings, her installations conjure the beauty and sadness of decaying spaces. Born in Cleveland and currently living in Detroit, Schenkelberg and I spoke upon her return from the Volterra-Detroit Foundation’s artist-in-residence program in Italy, where she explored the art and architecture of churches. In the following interview, we dive deep into the theme of spirituality and discuss the people and cities that have influenced her life and work.
Nicole J. Caruth (NJC): I believe this interview is supposed to provide readers with an introduction to you and your practice and I can think of many ways to start this conversation. But I’m wondering if there’s anything in particular that you want readers to take away or know about you from this interview?
Julie Schenkelberg (JS): Yes, there's part of my practice that's coming to the surface more as I'm maturing as an artist. When I reflect on the last ten years and what my interests are now, there are two parts and one is that I no longer fear the spirituality in my artwork and I'm pushing that forward at this time in my career. I've noticed through my investigations of post-industrial spaces in the Midwest and ancient areas of Europe that the connection is the continuity between how we honor the divine in art and expression. For me, that’s a couple of things: One is literally the connection to religion and the divine and the sacred. But also, I'm starting to understand how the structures of buildings and places emulate a geometry that I see across cultures in the designs and architecture. It’s not cultural; it’s an innately human thing. I've been thinking about that quite a bit lately.
In the past year, I’ve had a lot of transition, so I came to work on drawings again after many years. I’m originally trained as a painter in the theater. I've found that the drawings relate to the idea of a continuous spiritual investigation through geometry. That is mainly what I've been working on at the residency in Italy. I’ve been looking at Etruscan, Roman, and early Christian buildings, all the way up to the elaborate . . . I saw the Sistine Chapel for the first time last week. Ahhh! I'm having a renaissance of ideas for myself. So, spirituality is one thing that I'm honoring in my work now when I reflect back on the spaces that I’ve made because they look theatrical and they look sacred.
The other thing I’m thinking about is the expression of the feminine and bringing the feminine into my work. It’s always been there but I'm giving it honor and recognition now because it is sort of this extreme practice that I’ve created. A lot of my work is monumental and it involves collaboration, with people helping me to make it, and heavy machinery at times. These are things that I see not as obstacles but as interesting. And I think it sets me apart from many of my male counterparts. I began to think about gender in the last year and how it affects me when I’m in circles of men, or even with women, and the identity they think I should have as an artist.
NJC: The first time I saw your work was at ArtPrize in 2014. Looking at the work you've made in the past couple of years, there seems to be a significant shift in scale, from towering installations to smaller sculptures that appear altar-like. What was the impetus behind this shift?
JS: What happened was that I became more selective. In the past, I've been illustrating a large-scale event or happening through my work. I was using a massive amount of material. I wanted to use these things to create drama and overpower us and to overpower the subject. I think about the piece I made with the shipwreck title Symptomatic Constant. I wanted to accumulate as much material as I could to make this giant assemblage to have the effect of grandeur and presence. Within the piece were sections of honoring and smaller alters though I wasn’t entirely focused on that aspect of my work then. As I moved to these smaller more altar-like installations, I became more comfortable with the idea of expressing the divine and my own visual, personal spirituality. And even became more comfortable with thinking about the Midwest region because it has an ancient history but not a visible history; we can see maybe the last few hundred years on the surface.
I began to create identities and structures in an altar-like fashion and to accumulate stories from my family and investigate spaces in the Midwest. I combined everything and decided that I was going to make a fictitious history. But as I've gone along, I realized that it's not fictitious. It's another version of expressing my personality in the divine or human expression in outwardly showing the divine. For the pieces I've done in the last couple of years, I’ve been very selective about the individual components that make up the object. I took pieces that had been in my family's homes for a few generations and I cast them to make what I call “ghost castings” that hold their history. I created repetitions of them and then assemblages of the objects. That felt more sacred than just using objects that looked like theirs or compiling huge amounts of things. The pieces I've worked on recently are altars or sarcophagi where I imagine what my family would take to the next life or what they're doing there.
I noticed in my altarpieces and the sarcophagi that I started to use more drawing, in the sense of drawing with wood or objects in the pieces. Or repetitious drawings of how I moved pieces of wood or how I gathered things. When I lecture about my work, I show everything from the drawing of the space, to the drawings within the space, to the list of materials. I treat my objects like paint. There are pallets constructed around the room while I'm working, and everything is very carefully managed. This careful placement became an important part of my practice. This moved me to draw more and think about geometric structures that hold our bodies and hold space for us . . . When people see my work, I want them to feel something otherworldly, something they've forgotten, and maybe a sense of grief, like a relief sculpture. Those are the things I want to bring up about our human condition.
NJC: How do you define spirituality?
JS: For me, it is becoming in tune with wherever I am. I've been conditioned and taught many things and I went through a frustrating, angry period when I would say, "There is no religion." Then, through my art practice, there was a continuous feeling of religion and spirituality in terms of an attempt to feel in tune and understand where we are. I feel very happy and comfortable going to other places and feeling the spaces that have been created by other cultures and getting in tune with their visual language. I try to feel it, perhaps in a superficial sense because I don’t know the language or the culture, but I can feel the information they’ve presented...It’s the belief that there's something outside of us that we don't understand but that we accept.
NJC: Let’s back up a little bit. Prior to casting “ghost objects,” how did you go about collecting objects for your installations?
JS: I've had quite a good adventure in getting objects. I've done a couple shows where there's been an open call for objects. I've given galleries the thesis of the project and they have a day where people bring things that they want to be honored. In Kansas City, we were working in an area where they used to bring all the cattle and we collected material from a two-mile radius only because we wanted the installation to be about that area. For other installations that I’ve created, I've had a vision and a palette and gone to second-hand stores or I’ve collected things that remind me of what my family would have owned. Sometimes I find the same patterns they’ve had in their homes. Or I collect vintage things that I imagine were ideal to receive when people got married. A lot of my earlier work was about the middle-class trying to appear upper-middle-class and creating the facade of being something you aren’t. One way is through what you own because sometimes you can figure out how to own things you can't afford. The struggle and pain that creates for families became a premise of my work.
My dad was the oldest of ten, so my family is huge and has large amounts of things. There were so many dishes and so much washing and folding—I witnessed and took place in this care. Over time, I realized that I had sort of a unique upbringing. This thing of ritual got woven into me from working and handling things at home, and having relatives from different generations working together in a collective environment, and seeing my mother’s attention to detail in the home. My installations come directly from those experiences and my palette comes from my impressions as a young child, like the faded teals and the pinks and the wallpaper in my grandparent’s house.
NJC: A lot of your work has focused on ideas about the Midwest. You were born in Cleveland. You spent time in Omaha at the Bemis Center. You’ve done work in Kansas City. You lived in Grand Rapids. And now you're living in Detroit ... When I moved to Nebraska from Brooklyn it was such a culture shock though I'm grateful for that experience because I realized that in some ways, I’d lived in a bubble most of my life. The middle of the country is very different from the east and west coasts. So, I’m wondering what your observations have been about the different areas you've moved through and lived in as someone who grew up in the Midwest?
JS: I love that question because I always feel like an outsider. The strange thing about Cleveland is that it's a bit isolated and has its own culture with all these remnants of very high culture. It’s had a world-renowned orchestra since the 1930s and Cleveland Museum of Art is unbelievable. While my parents were working, my brothers and I would adventure around the city. We'd end up at the art museum, or we'd go to the graveyards and look around (Rockefeller's buried there), or we’d adventure into former industrial buildings. There are all these strange remnants of the past in Cleveland and I would fantasize about what the rest of the world was like. I felt lucky in a way because we were living at a culturally and racially diverse intersection of Cleveland. It gave me and my brothers a reference for what else was out in the world and how we could be a part of it or relate to it. And it excited us. I feel like our exposure to literature and this strange idea of what the rest of America might be like was helpful to my artistic practice.
I ended up living in New York City for eight years and I thought for sure I'd live there forever, but I started to treat the city the way I treated the Midwest; I was constantly leaving for another place. I would come back and spend long periods of time digesting my travels and I felt my sense of time was longer. New York was difficult for me because time feels short there. Going to graduate school and having many jobs—it was too much information for me, I think. I began reflecting more on what was happening in the Midwest. When I went to Omaha, I guess I liked the boringness of it in relation to New York. It’s so boring that you have to find something to extract and make it interesting. Omaha is slower than New York...and it’s dustier. I think because there’s less movement you feel dust accumulating. I loved it. I eventually left New York and moved to Grand Rapids. Then I moved around for about four years until I decided to go to Detroit.
I was fascinated by Detroit even though in Cleveland we’re wary of Detroit because of what we know about our own city. They're both considered fallen cities and kind of wild. The structures and industry and the buildings have disintegrated. Cleveland and Detroit are like sibling cities. I'm living in the Detroit metro area, in a small section called Hamtramck. It's a great mixture of people and it actually reminds me of Brooklyn. My neighbors are Ukrainian, Bangladeshi, African American, young white artists, Persian artists . . . It’s more layered than people realize. People in Cleveland will say, "Weren't there riots there?" And I say, "We're changing our perception of that and understanding why these things happened."
NJC: How has moving from Grand Rapids to Detroit influenced your practice?
JS: What I like about Detroit is that there is a deep sense of experimentation around the abandoned spaces in the city, which I thrive on. My practice seemed to fit in this context. There are lots of artists who have remained in Detroit and have been practicing their practice and I like that. I also really like the sense of invention. When I'm driving around the city, I’m inventing what was there in my mind or feeling what was there. Another thing I like about Detroit is its younger artists. They are willing to take risks and they come up with ideas that are really good. I lend them knowledge and an outside perspective and they give me a new perspective.
NJC: You talked about Detroit being a storied place that people believe to be wild and whatnot, but that’s not what I hear when you talk about the community and that’s not been my experience there. Talk to me about the difference between the stories that are told about Cleveland and Detroit and what it’s actually like for you to live there while knowing the negative perceptions that others have of these cities.
JS: I personally feel that there's more of a coming together in Detroit than I felt in Cleveland. I've felt very welcomed from many different sections of the Detroit community. I’ve lived in a lot of different Detroit neighborhoods and long-term African-American residents have said to me, "We're glad you're here. We like artists and we want to know your impressions of our neighborhood." And then I say, "I'm from Cleveland" and that opens up a whole new connection and conversation. They're like, "Well, you're just like us. You've experienced the rise and fall of a city." They're not sure of my intention and maybe I'm not sure of my intention, but what I'm interested in is this common thing that we hold together.
I’ve done installations in Detroit and had residents come up to me and say, “I was concerned about what you were going to do with our history.” And I said, “You should be.” I’ve learned that many people come into the city and claim it or they claim the materials and construct something and then they leave. An artist in his mid-seventies came to see my work and said, "Do you understand there's something here in the history and the spiritual feeling of your work? You've contained it." I felt better about what I was doing because my work does involve extracting burned or industrial materials from abandoned buildings and reclaiming them.
NJC: When you’re gathering materials around Detroit, materials that might tell certain stories or reflect certain areas, how are you thinking about the trauma one experiences from losing their home or being gentrified out of their neighborhood? And has this come up in conversations about your work?
JS: It's this sad story that's always circulating in my work. I'm always trying to beautify the materials, to transform them. I write a lot about the transformative experience that I want people to have when they see my work. I’m thinking about the phrase, “The poison is what heals.” When we experience trauma we hold it in our bodies and in our lives and we don’t forget it. But what we learn from it and how we express or transform it is the most important thing. I don’t want to deny the history of places in my work and I don't want to appropriate others’ history in a way that is exploitative. I want to show beauty, as well as compassion for the experience of trauma. It's a fine line. I may think I have permission because I'm from the Midwest, but I also have a white history.
In Grand Rapids, I was able to be very close to the Roosevelt Park community because I lived there during the Transmigration project, which involved a house that had been present in the community since 1910. I made a sculpture from the entire house while I lived in a house across the street that had been bought by Habitat for Humanity. The house I was living in was scheduled to be demolished to make space for new housing. I lived there for over a year, renovating it and housing artists with the group Site:Lab. That project built a lot of the sensitivity I take with me now. People in the neighborhood would come up to me and ask what I was doing, so person-to-person relationships developed. The neighbors would ask, “Why do you have this house? Why are you doing this in our neighborhood? Why do you live here?” I would say, “Well, this house is going to be demolished. I was gifted this house and this is what I'm doing with it. I want to transform the history of this house and send it on to the next world.” This reverberated with a lot of people and they loved it.
Habitat for Humanity didn't demolish the house I lived in after all because of the renovations I did! They ended up moving the house across the street! When I lived there, people would come to my door and say, “I lived in this house once.” And I would say, “Okay, come in.” This is how I began to get in touch with other people's stories. I ended up meeting the woman who had owned the house that I was making into my sculpture Transmigration and I gave her a tour of it. She cried and said, “You've liberated it by cutting this pattern into the house. It can breathe again and the good energy can flow freely now. It had become this place that nobody could live.” She thanked me for being able to walk through it again and for the opportunity to share with me what had happened in the house.
NJC: One of the things I hear you saying is that hospitality has become part of your practice and part of that is vulnerability.
JS: That's right on. My graduate school education in New York was to not be like I am now but to speak as though no one else was involved in my work. I’ve never been convinced of thinking that way for several reasons. I come from a theater background where you have to rely on other people to create a beautiful final product and everyone has their own expertise. When I started to work outside of New York, I let myself become more vulnerable and I learned more as a result. Having vulnerability and transparency to connect to other human beings relates to that idea of the divine in my work; talking to people, bringing them into my process, and collaborating with them is a big part of it.
Nicole J. Caruth
Nicole J. Caruth is an independent curator and writer whose work examines identity and place. At the core, her projects are concerned with representation, neighborliness, and the necessities of life—such as food, shelter, and love. She has written for the Joan Mitchell Foundation and The Studio Museum in Harlem, and her writing has been published in the ART21 Magazine, ARTnews; C Magazine; Gastronomica; Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art; Public Art Review; and Vitamin Green, a Phaidon Press volume.
Image: Julie Schenkelberg, Homage to Finding, Installation Detroit, 2017, Plaster, rusted metal, wax, glass, burnt wood, 176 x 86 x 157 in.