Chronicle 003 - Giselle Hicks

Chronicle 003 - Giselle Hicks

This month we spoke with Giselle Hicks, whose solo exhibition "Growth Rest Change" is on show now at Placed. Hicks is shy about allowing visitors into her Helena studio, so we were honored for the invite and the opportunity to talk: about Agnes Martin, minimalism, and of course Montana.

Hicks is a true artist in the sense of putting her whole being into what she creates: "I love work that I understand with my body before I understand with words or language." To see her at work in the studio is to watch the magic of someone condensing boundless creative presence into a clay vessel you can hold in your arms. And to see one of these vessels is to see the body put into it, the mark that says: I am present in my work even when I am not here. The very contradiction of place we love to celebrate.





Placed: You recently read The Slip, about a tiny dead-end street in lower Manhattan that had an outsized influence on the art world.


Giselle Hicks: It's a new book about Agnes Martin, James Rosenquist, Ellsworth Kelly, Jack Youngerman and his wife, and Robert Indiana. The place was called the Coenties Slip at the southern tip of Manhattan. They were occupying old warehouses that were used for sail making. So they were in these big spaces where they could make work on a large scale. The vision I had in my own studio was making really big, full forms. I wanted to take up more space with my work. What if I make less work and take more time with each piece?

I’ve loved Martin’s and Kelly’s paintings for a long time, but I didn’t know about this early part of their career. What struck me while reading is how clear their distinct voices came through even though they were so young. I suspect this was possible for many reasons. First, they had space. They could work big if they needed to. Their living space and work space were one and the same and fairly minimal when it came to material possession or creature comforts. They took the world in at a particular pace. They didn’t have televisions or social media. Their main activity was taking long walks and translating the cityscape, the river, the docks, the experience of being into a distilled image, however abstract. They were present with themselves and each other. They were paying attention to their environment and their experience in the world. They were okay with quiet. Making their work was the center of their lives.

I love how they both translated their experience of the world, experience of being, with such restraint. There is very little material or visual information in those paintings, and yet they communicate so much. To me, standing in front of one of their paintings can be transportive. I love work that I understand with my body before I understand with words or language.

At the time I read the book I felt really lost in my studio. I had so many ideas but I couldn’t stick to any particular one. I was overwhelmed. Reading about Agnes Martin in particular made me want to get back to the beginning of things: to ask myself “What’s non-negotiable? What are the essential qualities I want to translate in my work?” For me that is beauty, strength, breath, clarity of form. 




Placed: Are you transporting this New York moment into Montana?


Hicks: It's easy to romanticize parts of the past, especially when you read about these giants of the art world working together before they knew the impact they would have on the culture. And they certainly positioned themselves in a city where they could be recognized, have access to dealers at the time, and be in the mix.

I’m not seeking that level of recognition. I was never the person that needed to be at the center of the thing—I often positioned myself on the periphery in order to observe. But like the Counties Slip artists, I am seeking the sort of space and a more spare environment like they had in order to think and create.

I tend to feel overwhelmed easily and am sensitive to my environment like so many humans and artists. So living out here works for me. It’s really beautiful and feels easier to connect to the small community of makers here to talk shop and support each other. There are not many distractions or obstacles to living out here—it’s relatively affordable, and it’s easy to move around, see/make friends, get on a trail, be quiet.



Placed: You’ve lived all over—Philadelphia, New York, Aspen where you found the mountains claustrophobic—but here in Helena you have space to think. Can you elaborate?


GH: My home is in the middle of the prairie that is the Helena Valley. There are no trees: just a gentle rolling landscape delineated by a fence here and there, a few houses in the distance. Basically, I live surrounded by neighbors who have cows and horses that graze nearby. When people come to my home they always ask “How do you live out here?” And then after a few minutes of being in the house or studio they comment on how peaceful and beautiful it is. I can see the weather coming and going, a few mountain ranges in the distance. The sky is big. It feels like there is room for my thoughts. It's very quiet. I really like that. When I first came to Helena in 2011, my body and mind found a sense of equilibrium I had never experienced. I feel very free here, physically and mentally healthy, in touch with the rhythms of nature.


PL: One powerful element in your work is the contrast between its tightness and the fingerprints you leave in the material.


GH: Before I started making the vessels, I was making this really fussy work that had tons of inlay and imagery in it. But it was so cumbersome. By the time I was done making that work, I didn't like it anymore, I didn't want to live with it. It felt I had worked the life out of it. So I gave myself the assignment to make something with as few tools as possible, just so I could have a direct relationship with the work.

I was looking at paintings—Martin, Robert Ryman, Jackson Pollock, Alma Thomas—and pots. You could see the process, the person, the timing, the sort of energy in the work. You could read it. You can read it in the marks. My entry point into art is always relating to the artist’s process.




PL: Not everyone does that. Some people try to find the idea or concept behind the work before the material or process.


GH: I think all the artwork I come to first is imagining the process of the person, of the body. There's a certain speed to this. There's a certain way Alma Thomas probably dipped her paintbrush. You can kind of feel the little tick marks that she's making to make those little pink marks over the dark background, which is beautiful. I love how much of her body and the time she took to make that painting is embedded in that.

I wanted my work to have some evidence of my body and time and to honor that I am kind of a fussy type person. To also leave some softness in the work is to not use very many tools.

I have my banding wheel, a fork, a knife, a rib. This feels like my language with the clay. You can see my body in this if you take your time.



PL: You are truly a minimalist. You probably know this quote since you are an Agnes Martin fan but when she was asked how to be an artist, she said don’t have children, don’t have pets, don’t eat very much, stay hungry.
But she did have schizophrenia.



GH: I’m not that extreme. I love to snack and I have a dog. 

But she stayed hungry in many ways. I always loved her paintings. The expression she could show with very little material and very little movement of the body.

There’s fear in that too because that controlled element is what’s so powerful. What’s so ballsy about her paintings is their restraint and how they try to communicate a spiritual state. It’s vulnerable. People could easily walk by and dismiss them, but actually the paintings are baring her soul in a way. These quiet paintings with light washes of pink, white, blue, yellow, delicate lines at a time where a lot of her peers, mostly men, were making these big gestures with lots of paint during the AbEx movement.

She was like: I’m going to make some powerful work without all the drama and bravado. I admire that she said what she wanted in her own terms in her own language.



PL: You have an upcoming show, "Growth Rest Change."


GH: For this show I took iconic silhouettes from the ceramics canon and translated them into my style in a soft/curved and geometric/angular silhouette. I wanted to revisit the vast lexicon of form that we see out in the world, to revisit my favorite pots, study their proportions and posture, fall in love with the vessel all over again.


Photos by Will Warasila

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