Photograph of Samatha Russell's "Lethe" (2017) by the author 

MFA exhibitions are generally a cluster@$*#. Graduates race to finish their thesis, showcasing what it is they’ve done over the past two years – because yes, they’ve been working hard, not hardly working! --  all the while keeping in mind where they are going next. I like going to MFA exhibitions, not only for the rawness of the work I usually see, but to keep an eye out for who’s up-and-coming.

I almost fell onto sculptor Samantha Russell’s piece “Lethe” (2017) in part because there it was, emerging out of the tiled floor. It is a pieced-together, displaced female body made out of unfired clay. Positioned as if it were jutting out of the floor, or perhaps floating in the river, “Lethe” also references one of the five rivers of Hades, the river of forgetfulness. At once this could be a scene from “Twin Peaks” but it’s also reminiscent of the mass graves of immigrants that were uncovered in 2015 in Texas just miles inland from the U.S.-Mexico border. It also nods to the normalization of both violence against women. 

Curious to learn more about Lethe’s work, I reached out to her about doing a studio visit in which we drink sparkling water and discuss her art. Being fabulous and worldly, turns out she was in Italy. So we emailed instead, while I drank sparkling water from my desk in the Twin Cities. I imagine she sipped wine in Italy, because when in Rome . . .

John Everett Millais' "Ophelia" (1851-2). Image via Wikimedia.

ALICIA ELER: Tell me about this piece! It’s great. I know you’re referencing one of the five rivers of Hades, and I was also thinking of Sir John Everett Millais' painting “Ophelia” (1851-2) . . . but I was also thinking of political overtones, specifically the bodies of immigrants that were found in unmarked graves at the U.S.- Texas border in 2015. What was going through your head as you made this piece?

SAMANTHA RUSSELL: I was thinking about loss of all kinds, but “Lethe” is specifically referencing personal loss. We lose people not only to death but to distance and time as well. After two deaths in the family within a very short time, I was thinking about a lot of people that were still alive but I had still lost. The idea of immigration has been in my mind, and how could it not right now, however those losses have manifested themselves into another project that I will be starting soon. 

AE: I notice that you are working mostly with clay – is it unfired? What drew you to that material?

SR: For this sculpture the clay is unfired. I wanted to use the fragility of unfired clay so that the works would break and wear away. The portion of the work outside wore away because it was left unprotected and the portion in the gallery was ultimately destroyed and gallery visitors neglected to see the work and stepped on the bodies. The literal destruction through human carelessness was something the unfired clay echoed well for the metaphorical ideas I was speaking to. 

Close-up of "Lethe." Image courtesy of the artist.

AE: Naturally, the body factors often into your work – but it seems to be mostly the body in fragments and parts, never the whole “unified” body. Talk about the nature of fragmentation and your interest in presenting it in this physical form.

SR: Figurative sculpture has always fascinated me with its recognizability as human, even in the abstract. When we see figurative works, as makers and viewers we place ourselves into the position of the sculpture and, in return, I feel, are better able to empathize with the concepts. I use fragmentation to insure identity for a more universal identification but to also draw specific attention. Specific body parts and gesture convey specific ideas and moods and I like to use those gestures alone to find specificity in sharing my concepts. 

AE: Do you have any shows coming up? Or, are you basking in that #postMFAlife right now and not doing anything at all?

SR: I currently have a sculpture in a show, 8-Bit, hosted by Whitdel Arts, housed in Hatch Arts in Detroit. I am also creating and curating works for an exhibition next spring at Inver Hills Community College in Minnesota. 

AE: Who are some of the artists that influence your work? Are you inspired by Kiki Smith at all?

SR: Kiki Smith is definitely influential as well as Ai Weiwei, Rodin, Michelangelo, Magdalena Abakanowicz, Martha Rosler, Lauren Kulman, Yoan Capote, Cristina Cordova, and so many more. 

"Grasping" (2016). Image via SamathaRussell.com.

AE: What are you up to in Italy? Vacation or residency?

SR: Italy is a bit of a vacation before I begin a fellowship with Kunstverein Würzburg for 8 weeks this summer. 

AE: What would you like viewers to take away from viewing “Lethe”?

SR: Mindfulness and remembering, not only of those we have lost for good but those relationships we can still mend with a little effort and attention. 

Visit Samantha Russell's website for more info about the artist: http://samantharussellfineart.com/

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