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The Scarlet & Black

Artist discusses media, collaboration

Jane Gilmor, an artist from the University of Iowa, spoke Thurs. in Bucksbaum. (Un)seen Work, her installation in Faulconer, concerns the work of the many people whose work is often forgotten, such as mechanics, waitstaff and health care workers.

Why did you choose metal as the main medium for the Faulconer installation?
The metal is a long story. I entered my cat in Glamour Kitty Pageant and won a trip and did a bunch of successive pieces about it and did a film. And then we won a trip. It was the year of the Legionaire’s Disease, though, so no one wanted to win. Anyway, there were 9 finalists, and I won that. And then for the catalogue for a show I did afterwards, I put on this French little kid’s cat mask, so that became my alter-ego and I would go to Greek ruins and the Middle East and all over and reclaim these famous mythological patriarchal sites like the temple of Olympian Zeus… There were also these little metal votives that were kind of the physical manifestation of a spiritual thing, so if you had a broken leg or if your heart was broken, someone would make for you or you would buy this metal relief silver image of a heart or a leg or a breast, or your cow—you know, it could be anything—they even had TV sets and cars. And you put that with the saint that you felt would help heal that. Whether they believed it or not, it was just a way to physically manifest a spiritual idea. I got really interested in those and in Greek and Russian icons. We were making imitations of those with something that was a little thicker than tin foil, and then I remembered that when I was in Brownies, we used to do these copper rubbings. It’s an old craft technique. So the two of those things suddenly melded in my mind and I found some of the metal by talking to a Greek icon maker, and I just started playing with it and drawing on it. So I’ve used it for years. I don’t always use it, but I frequently use it, in a situation like this, because people can see their reflections in it and it has a kind of memorial quality. It gives mythic status to something very ordinary.

Can you briefly describe your installation and what your aim is in creating it?
The installation is (Un)seen work and the whole project is because of Leslie Wright and Tilly Woodward’s idea, Sharing Community. They asked me if I would be interested in doing a project about work because I had done a project in Cedar Rapids and one in Chicago about work… We decided to interview as many people as possible from Grinnell who work in unseen jobs, or jobs that keep a place going, but that disappear into the woodwork, but we forget about them, or we don’t think of them as important jobs, and they’re largely invisible. Health care workers, and the guy that fixes the pipes in the middle of the winter when there’s a flood, the laundry, the cafeteria workers, the waitresses, cleaners, everything. That was the original idea, to give a voice to the people who keep a place going but no one really thinks about them. We had students video interview about 50 people. We went to community meals and got a cross section of people any where from 80 years old to 20 years old, although it is on the older side. From those transcribed interviews, I read through and picked things to put on the metal. At the same time, I offered workshops to the people who had been interviewed, where I showed them the technique and they made metal books where they talked about their history of work themselves. All the metal books are made by the community themselves All the writing on the walls was selected and written by me and two of my student collaborators…I did a lot of research on the history of Grinnell like the shoe factory and the carriage factory. I had no idea how much of small industry it was. I looked at the different local logos and I went to the historic museum and found objects. The participants also brought their own objects that had something to do with their work, which is why there’s hair clippers. One women worked for the General Telephone, and she was the one who sent out the last bill before they sent it to the collector, and all of them would come back with these amazing notes on them, like a check made out to “those idiots at GTE.” She saved everything, she has notebooks of all of the bills that were sent back to her. We have that here, and all kinds of records of their lives and works. And then I went to the factories and filmed people, like at the sign factory in town… What I made was a large walk-in book, that gives voices to these people and presents some images and the video interviews are in the walls. There’s a certain transformation that happens when it goes from talking to writing to drawing. It presents a nontraditional art form, something that most people don’t at first understand why this is art. It encourages people to use their imagination as a daily survival tool, and it gives a voice to people in the community that might not normally have one.

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    JaneeNov 9, 2010 at 6:19 pm

    Isn’t Jane from Cedar Rapids, not Iowa City? I think you cited the wrong school.