Helen Frederick Interview

What inspires/motivates you?
Conversations with friends, all around the world. These days that can be social networks that bring data, information, and knowledge daily for us to become aware and conscious. I’m pretty methodical in mapping out the tasks and responsibilities of the day, and very self-reliant. I like working with people who take that same responsibility, and that takes on a chemistry of its own. Working with people is a medium of its own. Also I am interested in natural systems on which our society and our development depend. Those systems are important and often fragile. My discovery of many systems came through materials and substances used in printmaking and art making in general and now have grown into awareness on a more global scale in terms of methods and materials used by various cultures around the world.

The fusion or art and science is a powerful means for affecting positive social change. Artists and scientists in many diverse ways are agents for creating the change and in collaboration can intensify efforts to solve problems and make others more conscious of the world’s natural capital and conditions around them.

Currently I am working on a lecture “Investigating Cultural Literacy” that will approach the relationship of natural materials and their prowess to be made by hand into other transformed useful materials as a lesson in daily life, industry, art, politics and science. It will examine two very different papermaking areas in the Sichuan area of China to enable a further understanding of how hand papermaking provides an intersection of cultural values  (“embodied” and “embedded” skills) and their affect on economic development. Other age-old traditions that are also a hybrid of so many complex parts that only dedicated communities can sustain their legacy and effectiveness into usefulness in various parts of the world will be viewed as comparative subalterns to contemporary Western cultural literacy and currency. Understanding how assimilated technologies can grow from an indigenous culture will be examined as a primary trajectory of this century

Looking at the assimilated technologies and processes that the arts and sciences embody, we can embrace a more critical path for mutual understanding among individuals and communities.

How does data affect aesthetics in your work, and vice versa?
When you look how papermaking is done,  for example, there’s a whole experience of how it smells, how you beat it, how you dry it, all these things are not really identifiable as strict data. The Chinese papermaking industry was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution because the society at the time determined that they didn’t have value. The art is coming back, and it proves that there are embodied skills and there are embedded skills. You pass on the art, your information, and that data becomes a living entity that can be explored and expanded.

I’m interested now in how we use the prowess of the hand, the tactile process of using one’s hands, as opposed to somebody who is completely devoted to technology. I have always learned experientially, I have traveled to other countries to see how things are done, as a cycle of defining and recreating. It was interesting how, when we started SOFALAb, Paul (who is an artist) was much more data and hypothesis oriented. Just like in intercultural conversation, people often enter the art/science conversation from different angles. We are often seduced in by the things that interest us. Conversations create an exchange of realities, but we never know what’s going to come of the reactions. It’s that way with papermaking, you have to know the chemistry before you can do the art.

What (if any) personal collisions have occurred in the combination of art and science?
I think it’s all time, space and duration. Scientists will start from a platform that is more concrete and often more difficult to understand, whereas artists are more conceptual and they haven’t done the extensive background research. We have to create a common ground, and there is a degree of patience just waiting for something to connect. With two personalities combining on the same form, you have to bridge and create a new form out of two models. That takes time, and we didn’t realize when we applied for a one-year grant how long that could take, especially when you’re working with two people who have never done this before, which is what we wanted to do.

What “aha” moments have occurred in the process?
The artist has “aha” moments  a lot, and the challenge is to refine them, which ones will work and be comprehended by others. For me, when I saw paper made in India, some local kids brought me out there and I saw these women sitting and working with this material, I saw this liquid become a strong sheet of paper. I had no idea that could happen. Then I learned the history of paper making, incorporated it into my work and had many aha moments from there. That happened in the glass workshop too, as I went back and forth between worrying about logistics and making a mess and the creativity of what I wanted to make. Going back and forth like that has made me more aware of my own left and right brain, and now I’ve become very good at seeing the same process in others and letting them have their own “aha” moments.

What has been most unfamiliar to you in this research process? What has made you take a second look at the process and/or product?
Well, I’m the sponsor, so I haven’t been involved in the immediate investigations, but I have been an advisor for Alice Quatrochi’s project. Her perseverance and her ability to redefine images through the use of wire and flax paper have expanded her experience beyond whatever she thought she could do. The neurons were unfamiliar to me, how they could be made more visible through Giorgio and Alice’s work, and they’re now continuing to apply for grants to expand the work. Caroline Wellbery’s project also gave her the idea of applying to work further with medical waste.

Where might this work be displayed? Who is the target audience?
I would like to see a plurality of vision for the arts. If I’m making an artist book I’d like to see it listed in Time magazine with other books. My audience is often geared towards women, because my work is often designed to give women a voice and changing the parameters of how women and their work are viewed. There’s a thought that women go into the arts because they’re “softer”, I think that women go into the arts to reflect changes within themselves. I hope to bring that change in perspective into the larger audience. Now I’m working with veterans, and they’re mostly men, and so young too. I see that my audience, and maturity, isn’t age based either. The ideas aren’t based on any form, gender, anything like that, it’s just out there for us to see, and we have such little time to enjoy it. Life is short and we best embrace it fully with every person and colleague.