Photo credit: Wendy D.
Life, Desires, and the Artistic Community
by Brittany Vesterback
“I love when people say, oh what do you do? And I say, oh, I’m an assemblage artist, and then I just wait for the, ‘What’s that?’ You meet very few people who know right off the bat what assemblage is, but once you do it makes complete sense. ‘Oh, you’re assembling stuff!’” She laughs.
Valerie Arntzen (www.valeriearntzen.com) has an awesome laugh, warm and a little rough. We’re sat in her workspace, which is reminiscent of a fabricator’s workshop but with much better lighting. Different projects are littered across the tables. There are walls of shelves filled with carefully labeled boxes. “Metal”, “Rusty Metal”, “Jewelry”, “Wood” and so on. There is also a large glass fronted cabinet against one wall filled with “stuff that [Arntzen] just doesn’t want to get jumbled in.”
Taking in the sheer volume of pieces she’s collected, I ask her if there’s some stuff in the cabinet, in the boxes on the shelves, that she’s been holding on to for a long time, waiting for it to speak to her?
“Oh, yeah. But I still like it, and I don’t want it to go away. And maybe its mate will come in through the door some day.” She shows me one of such piece, a bit of metal that looks almost like a bit of armour that has been made for a small child. “I’ve had some pieces sit for months, and sometimes I finish them, and sometimes I go, ‘You’re just not working and just whoosh!’—” She makes a sweeping motion with her hands. “Put all the stuff away and start again.”
“A big part of being an assemblage artist is having stuff. I have a group of artists that I work with and we’ll occasionally do a free art giveaway, where we clean out our studios. That’s what all that stuff is under there,” she points to some stuff piled in one corner of her workspace, “stuff I know I’m not going to use, but that maybe someone else can.”
“There’s something about each piece that resonates, and I want to be able to see them…some stuff becomes precious.”
For years, Arntzen worked in the film industry, notably acting as a buyer for the set dec department (a branch of the art department) on The X-Files. “They’d give me notes on the character—say this is a girl who lives in the Midwest but she’s a punk. How would she decorate her bedroom?” It was Valerie’s job to figure that sort of thing out, and to find the pieces that would make that space real. Though she was attached to a team, as a buyer she was able to “go solo” a lot of the time, and given leeway to realize her visions.
But she always knew that she wanted to “go a bit bigger” with her own art. She always had something going when she was working, a project of her own, but Arntzen admits that it was difficult to find time to dedicate to her own art when she working the hours demanded by the film industry.
Her wish to stretch herself as an artist contributed to her decision to embark upon a self-directed residency in Amsterdam.
“My husband is a sailor, and his life desire is to sail to Tahiti, or sail in Tahiti. Either one. And that go me thinking, what’s my big dream desire? I mean, I have a pretty awesome life, but is there something I really want to do? And when I thought about it, it was to live in another country as an artist.”
The trip took two years to plan, as Arntzen and her husband—also an artist but one who works more with furniture and fabrication—had to coordinate their schedules and sort out exactly where they were going to stay. They had been to Holland before, knew a couple artists there, and when they did finalize everything there was a kind of kismet.
“It turned out that the place we’d rented in Amsterdam cost as much as what we were renting our apartment for back home. And it was spacious enough that we were able to just work there, rather than renting a studio.”
Arntzen and her husband spent six months in Amsterdam, stretching themselves artistically. It was part of what she refers to as her “eight years of homeschooling in art.” “We both started working on things that we normally don’t do—why go somewhere else and do the same thing? I started working with fabric, making what I refer to as Ceremonial Blankets. They were a kind of fabric collage, and I think that’s what got me on the path to collage.”
Arntzen has always loved to travel. She and her husband are both “rescuers” and she tells me that her early introduction to the art world came with painting furniture found at flea markets and swap meets. She drew inspiration from African and Mexican patterns. Later, while visiting Mexico, learned about the Virgen de Guadalupe. Not a religious person herself, she nonetheless found herself drawn to religious icons in all their many forms, be it medallions or icons or statues. She collected them, along with other keepsakes of her travel, and they can be found in many of her assemblages.
“I’d find this piece from one part of the world, and this other piece from another part of the world, and I started seeing the way that they fit together in my world.” Part of the allure of a found object is that “it has it’s own patina, it’s own weight of wear, almost. They come with their own story. And if you put two different stories together, you create a whole other story.”
There is a strong element of storytelling to Arntzen’s work, even when the story is just for herself. An avid photographer, who admits to taking “thousands of photographs,” Arntzen regularly compiles her photographs into fabric covered hardback books, each one themed. The books are not for sale, or intended to be displayed, but are for Arntzen herself, a way of curating her experiences. There is no text in or on any of these books; they are distinguished by a window cut into the front cover, revealing the theme of the book. One book is filled with photographs of laundry hung out to dry. Arntzen admits to being a little fascinated by laundry hung out to dry, by the wholesomeness and universality of it. Another book is just doors.
Photographs that don’t make it into her books are used in her blog, her assemblages, in her cigar boxes, and in her experiments with collage.
Arntzen had always tried to maintain a presence in the artistic community in Vancouver, even when she didn’t have much time for her own artwork. That community involvement is clearly very important to her; she is involved with the Eastside Culture Crawl and spearheaded a project called First Saturday. First Saturday is an open studio, hosted each month by different artists.
“It’s not so much about the exhibition or the sale, it’s more a come on by and see it, or buy it, or whatever,” she tells me of First Saturday. It’s a chance to talk with artists about their process, to drop in and see what they’re working on. First Saturday is intended to give people a chance to interact with artists, for artists to interact with each other, a way of sharing ideas and inspiration.
“Most of the actual assemblage shows I’ve been in have been out of Vancouver, wehter it’s the island or up north. For instance, the Stationhouse in William’s Lake makes a real effort to expose people to different kinds of art. Here in Vancouver you think there’s everything, and there is a lot of stuff, but mostly here, until Janet Lee started a show called ReVision at the Granville Hotel, there wasn’t a lot for artists like me.” Though the community of BC assemblage artists is pretty big, it can still be difficult to find real estate in Vancouver. Still, awareness of and interest in artists like Arntzen is growing, which is apparent in the fact that The Reclaimers show on Granville Island back in May, which Arntzen took part in, was one of several proposed exhibits on the theme of recycling.
It is also apparent in Arntzen’s growing clientele.
“At first I thought you didn’t need to sell your work, but you do.” Arntzen shies away from the word “validation” but acknowledges that it’s “something close to that.”
“It’s not validation because you don’t need that, it’s more … if you’re just in your studio making art and it never leaves your studio, what exactly was the purpose? I think you should always be true to yourself and make art for yourself, but…having done the Crawl for so many years, I’ve seen these trends come and go. You know, everyone is buying condos, everyone is buying small art, so you force yourself into making a small little painting—and then it doesn’t work. Because you’re not true to yourself.”
I agree that validation isn’t quite the right word, though it does apply. More,that someone is willing to pay for your work tells you that there are people who understand what you are doing, or at least think it’s worth something. Which, yes, is validation, but is also an affirmation.
At this moment, Arntzen is “refining” her art.
“I’ve been in this collage show in New Zealand for five years, called Virtual Tart, and it’s funny because the woman who puts it together says, ‘If I get a piece of collage sent in, I can go, yes, that’s so-and-so.’ But she says that with my work, she can’t tell, she’s never sure what I’m going to do. And I think that’s because I’m still exploring, and I’ve decided to take this year to play and refine a little. I think it will all come together, and who knows how it’s going to play out. I think the cigar boxes were a first step in combining my photographs and assemblage.”