by Aiano Nakagawa
Austen Camille Weymueller is a feminist and visual artist educated at Reed College. She uses several mediums and draws from a variety of disciplines to show the experiences of bodies.
Aiano Nakagawa: What is your connection to feminism? Do you identify as a feminist?
Austen Camille Weymueller: I am absolutely, most definitely, hands-down a feminist. I understand feminism to be equality in all regards. The strong need to self-identify as a feminist didn’t actually arise until last year while explaining my thesis project to a friend. I’d used the word “feminist”, and he flinched and said he didn’t really like that word. It felt like such a slap in the face! To finally put words to my feelings only to have them be devalued made me want to assert myself all the more. And that is only the tip of the iceberg. I have been harassed on the street and sexually assaulted and told that barbecuing is for men. Enough, enough enough enough.
AN: How did you get involved in your medium & when did you start?
ACW: I don’t have a clean answer to this. I have never been able to choose just one medium, and so I like to think of myself as a “maker” (rather than a painter, a sculptor, etc.). The work I do has evolved from drawing to printmaking to photography to building to painting, and lots of things in between it all. Lately I’ve been drawn toward installation-based work, where I have to take into consideration the space, lighting, movement of the viewer, and the senses.
AN: When did you begin to identify as an artist & how did this identification begin?
ACW: “Being an artist” is something I have wanted for an awfully long time. Actually working out the nuts and bolts of deciding to be an artist, a working artist who maybe someday can partially feed herself from her work, is going to be hard. After graduating, I was accepted into an artist residency program where I had the incredible luxury of time to make work without paying rent, without even needing to pay much for food (it was a farm, so the produce was pretty fabulous). Somewhere during those two months, I realized that I was legitimately an artist. I don’t know if it was having others validate my work by accepting me into their program, or the feeling I got from creating constantly, but it now means that I am wholly dedicated to becoming a working artist.
AN: In regards to your thesis work, A (Tenuous) Body (of Work), why do you call it a "Tenuous" body? Can you talk about the title a little bit?
ACW: Tenuousness here is used to call attention to something delicate, fragmentary, hard to get a hold of. I also think it is a beautiful word that sounds like what it means. The pieces in A (Tenuous) Body (of Work) are painted on glass, sheer cloth, and sheets of transparency, all in layers. The material itself is tenuous and difficult to focus on, as it asks the viewer to navigate through several layers and make sense of fragments of drawing. The cloth shifts with the viewer’s breath and movement, and the glass catches light and shadows and reflections. The subject matter itself - the distorted female figure - is a single body repeated in multiple expressions. To me, it was the quiet sense of panic that one gets in a vulnerable situation, where the mind is going in infinite directions and the body is helpless to grasp onto any of them. This kind of tenuousness.
AN: Why A Qualifying Body of Work? What is the significance of "Albert Camu's le'etranger" and the pages of his book? What is the reference we should know about?
ACW: In your third year at Reed College, you have to pass what is called a ‘Qualifying Exam’. For me, it consisted of 10 preliminary sketches, a final piece, and an essay which had to address the decision to pursue art within a liberal arts context. I’d read Camu’s L’Étranger in a French class and noticed that I was reading without translating (a big and beautiful moment when studying a foreign language). It was such an aha! realization, as was the subsequent understanding that learning a language and making my art was not so different. There is a vocabulary and technical skills that will build up, but ultimately something clicks and takes over. I wanted to include this experience in the body of work, and many of the figures I drew or painted were inspired by characters in L’Étranger.
AN: What is your interest in the body? How do you see human bodies? Is that different from how you see animal bodies?
ACW: How I understand the human body has definitely changed over the last few years. Taking figure drawing classes in high school, I appreciated the ever-changing musculature and the wavering line between representation and expression. Through most of college, my figures were completely androgynous and sex-less. It is only within the past year or so that the figures I depict have become decidedly woman-like. Something snapped and I needed to take some kind of control over how I’d regarded my body since being sexually assaulted a couple years before. Shame and fear and guilt can alter one’s perception of the body tremendously.
I see human bodies as extensions of feeling. When I draw a body, if the thing that I am trying to get across is strength and capability, the bodies are muscled with sturdy hands and extraordinarily large feet. If it is a sense of helplessness, the bodies are loose and limp with fingers far too long to be useful. These are just examples, but I do tend to distort figures based upon whatever it is I want to say.
I don’t think I have ever really considered the difference between animal and human bodies. I see animal bodies as containing attributes that humans try to mimic. Humans seem to have decided that animals are simpler creatures than we; to be lion-like or mouse-like are one-dimensional descriptions. One project I worked on, a series of woodcuts on doors, portrayed humans in animal suits (an eagle, an alligator, a giraffe, and a bear). The animal bodies that the human bodies inhabited were baggy and loose, rather than the examples of strength and power usually stereotypical of such creatures. The humans resting within had lost the power of using their hands (thinking about it now, that is pretty significant…). But, thinking about it, I think that if I were ever to decide to draw animals, it would be in a very similar fashion to the humans. Perhaps their expressive tendencies could be a wild aesthetic to start exploring!
AN: Can you tell us a little bit about your installations? For instance, in your 2015 Gender Studies symposium at Lewis and Clark?
ACW: The series of photographs submitted to the Gender Studies Symposium, entitled In the Altogether, was a collaboration with best friend and fellow feminist Taylor Leigh. By marking our bodies with charcoal for the photographs, we were trying to make visible the imprints (places we have been touched and loved and ignored and hurt) that others have left. Instead of this visibility giving ownership to those who marked the body, it was a way to accept that the self is partially comprised of these imprints and experiences.
In this and other installations I have done, the body is always the significant presence. The body is subject matter, it is my physical act of making, and it is the viewer’s bodily experience of the work. The last installation I did, The Sanctuary, was a small room built of paintings of women in the act of working. Because the space was so small, the viewer had to slow down in order to enter, and could only experience it alone or with one or two other people. It becomes an intimate experience. The beauty of controlling the installation of my work lies in this ability to create relationships or spaces for active viewing.
AN: I see on your CV you've done North African Studies. How has that influenced your art?
ACW: Technically and formally, there are two specific examples I can think of. First, Islamic architecture and its intricacy fascinates me. The way in which wood and plaster and stone, all very weighty materials, can be carved into the lightest and most fragile-seeming textures is unlike anything else I have seen. Second, the first piece of art I ever bought was from a Moroccan artist. He was a folk artist, and the painting was of three singing men, all limbs and simple gestures of color. The simplicity and expression of joy conveyed by the work has stuck with me. The two influences might seem to contradict one another, but the focus upon texture and gesture is a common component.
AN: What artists do you admire? What kind of art is feeding you lately?
ACW: I admire artists who are able to evolve and alter their medium, those who completely dismantle and evade classification. I love the work of Ann Hamilton, Kiki Smith, Nancy Spero, Marlene Dumas. I love the fearless mark making of Cy Twombly, and the joyous figures of Marino Marini. Folk artist R.A. Miller’s works on tin and wood are stunning. Recently I’ve been looking more at artists who work in very public spheres, as opposed to gallery spaces, and who take entire environments into account. I think street art is important, public murals, and art that engages and includes. When I saw Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s project Stop Telling Women to Smile, I cried. And I just read about the Afghan performance artist Kubra Khademi who wore armor crafted in the shape of her body on a Kabul street for an 8-minute walk full of stone-throwing and insults. I admire brave, honest, unapologetic work, and that is a direction I need to work towards.
AN: Do you have any upcoming projects that you're excited about and would like to share with the AFO community?
ACW: I am currently working on a book of snippets and short stories from my travels to Morocco, Ecuador, Italy, and southeast Asia, illustrated with sketches. I am also starting to bounce around ideas for work concerned with “safe spaces”. I think a lot of American artists right now are reeling from and trying to grapple with similar issues: police brutality, shootings in schools and churches and movie theaters, the ongoing subordination of the female body. Making art is one way to process all of this, and the best way I know how. I need to figure out how to process this violation of safe spaces; to me, that is the most important thing I could work on at this particular time.
To learn more about Austen Camille Weymueller's art, take a look at her portfolio and website, austencamille.com. Thank you to Austen for taking the time to share her art with us.