Saturday, January 13, 2018

Traveling the Road to Freedom: A Conversation with Dominique Moody

By George Howell

Originally published in Sculpture, July/August 2017

Last summer, assemblage artist Dominique Moody brought NOMAD, a “tiny house” on wheels that serves as her living and creative space, to Harrison House Music, Arts & Ecology, located in Joshua Tree, California. The 140-square-foot mobile shotgun house, whose title stands for “Narrative, Odyssey, Manifesting, Artistic, Dreams,” is a gem of a compact, self-sufficient dwelling that highlights Moody’s deft joining of aesthetics and practicality. More than this, though, NOMAD is a work of social sculpture; Moody often uses the porch as a platform for spinning personal narratives around issues of affordable housing, race relations, and art as a tool for healing.

The daughter of a U.S. Army officer, Moody, who was born in Germany, knows about the nomadic life firsthand. After her large family returned to the United States, they moved frequently. They landed in Philadelphia, where they restored abandoned houses with the promise of ownership through “sweat equity,” only to have the homes repeatedly snatched away by the banks just before completion. The skills and resilience that Moody developed from this experience came in handy when she was forced to abandon her work as an illustrator, due to macular degeneration, and began creating sculptures.

Her three-month residency at the Harrison House’s Art & Ecology space focused on the principles of permaculture. Founder/director Eva Soltes says, “What Dominique Moody has created in NOMAD is so integrated in terms of art and ecology, this was a perfect match for both of us. For 30 years, she’s been evolving a system of aesthetically practicing form and function in her daily life. She brought her extraordinary ability to this site and helped us realize it.”

George Howell: One of your assemblages, which is made out of layered cardboard with a peaked roof and wrapped in twine, looks like a miniature version of NOMAD. Was this the earliest seed?

Dominique Moody: Not quite, but it was certainly part of that process. The Santa Monica Museum of Art had invited me to do a piece for its Incognito fundraiser, and I needed to replace a small house, which sold within days of being made. I found an old roller-skate at a sidewalk sale, put a shoebox on top of the skate, and immediately it was NOMAD. It’s called My Road to Freedom, and it took on a different dimension for me in its simplicity and “pared-down-ness,” as well as in its title—what being nomadic would mean for me.

GH: Did the idea of making a social space, a space that you not only lived in, but that also functioned as a platform for storytelling and community exchange, evolve out of making smaller pieces like this, or did you have the concept in mind to begin with?

DM: It may have been a combination of both. Initially this was to resolve a critical question for me as an artist, which was whether my work could support me and all my life needs. I needed to find a way to re-shift how my resources were being used: Could I continue to maintain a studio? One of the very first pieces was called House Dreams of an Urban Nomad, a stack of boxes on wheels that rotated around. It was part of a dream series that I did for the Watts Towers Art Center, my first solo exhibition, which brought me to Los Angeles for the first time. It was an amalgamation of all the places where I had lived, and it talked about the sense of being often displaced. In other places where I’ve shown, people were intrigued by the collage and assemblage, but they didn’t seem to quite grasp the kind of narrative I was telling. But in Watts, it was different, because people were immediately engaged with the stories, which connected to their everyday lives. And that’s when I started to realize the impact of my work as a social medium.

GH: When your family returned from Germany, did you feel like an immigrant?

DM: Exactly. Even at the age of four, I was acculturated elsewhere, and so I had to learn the culture firsthand, and I wasn’t comfortable with the language. I realized that, even as a child, my artwork was a bridge for the language gap, because when people saw the work, they would talk to me differently.

GH: Was that the beginning of your awareness of narrative?

DM: Absolutely. I loved illustrated books, because I could know the entire story by reading the imagery. I knew from really early on that I wanted to tell stories.

GH: You were an illustrator in the beginning of your career?

DM: Exactly, because I felt that it would be the best fit; it was the tool to tell stories with. The next big leap happened in my late 20s, when my eyesight started to fail, and I realized that I needed a whole different way to communicate. I hadn’t lost any vision; I lost some sight.

GH: One standout piece is of a guitar player, built into a guitar case. Your early assemblage work was not just narrative, it was also figurative.

DM: That was part of a series of silhouettes, which I started in the late ’80s, right after my diagnosis. I would make cutouts, life-size or larger. I have always loved drawing the details of the figure—hands, the face—but I could no longer see the details, and so the figures became more generalized in shape. Then I would cut the shapes out of wood and piece them together, and all of a sudden there were two-dimensional pieces in a three-dimensional space, and I realized I could embellish them with found objects and materials.

GH: These works seem really poetic, lyrical, and animated. Was “The Family Treasures Found” (2001 –02) the culmination of that approach?

DM: It was made with one of my first major grants, from the California Community Foundation, in conjunction with “Finding Family Stories,” and it is now part of the California African American Museum’s permanent collection. I had wanted to do it for a long time, because my immediate family is so spread out around the country, and we don’t possess a family portrait. After my grandmother died, I went through the family treasure, which was a box of old black and white and sepia-toned photos. On certain occasions, she would bring this box out, telling the story of the photos, and we were rapt with attention, because she was animated, and she would describe who these people were, their background stories.

GH: Can you describe one of the portraits?

DM: Mother Home is a portrait of my mom. Her body is made out of a tabletop, which is collaged like a kind of mapped tablecloth, and table legs; underneath there’s an object she treasured—an elephant with a fishbowl on top, and in the fishbowl was her second husband. Her arms are outstretched and she’s holding her silhouette. We grew up in a very eclectic house. The dishes were often different, but we appreciated the uniqueness of found objects and treasured them as our own. So, she helped me to select the teacups on the table, each teacup representing how she saw one of her children, and then they were placed on the maps where her children were located.

GH: This makes me think about Pop art assemblage and Edward Kienholz, Noah Purifoy, and John Outterbridge. How did they influence your work?

DM: They were often left out of traditional arts education. I came across them in unusual ways, and they captured my attention. The way that they incorporated objects together fascinated me and made me look at my dream life and the imagery that I transformed into my collages. When you cut out one image and put it on top of another, it becomes something else, but to do that in a three-dimensional way, to me, was magic. I shied away from it, though, until my eyesight changed, and I was almost forced to go into a more three-dimensional mode. Even though most of them were steeped in assemblage, or in collage, like Romare Bearden, each of these artists brought something really rich to my understanding of how to bring all of those elements together. I was surprised to realize that California had a unique form of assemblage. Watts Towers, for me, was an epiphany. Simon Rodia, who did not see himself as a traditional artist, built this thing over the course of 30-some years. All of the materials were found elements, and he constructed something at an architectural scale. I had always loved architecture, having to work on houses and do house-related jobs on the side, and here was someone who brought all of that together to embellish his house. I felt so attuned to that idea. I knew that if I had space and place, that was the kind of art I would do—not inside the studio, the art is the studio.

GH: When you talked about the sepia-toned photographs, I thought about the segregated world of your mother and grandmother. Purifoy and Outterbridge respond to being African American in a majority white culture with a kind of satirical finger-pointing. Why does your work, which focuses on bonding and family life, take a gentler approach?

DM: They had a responsibility to be a communal voice in a way that was absolutely demanding and revolutionary at the time. That paved the way for me, as part of a younger generation, to carve out a space where I could speak personally. While I was building that first solo body of work, my friends asked me if I would have an audience to go with me to that personal place. I wasn’t sure until I got to Watts, where people told me that their personal stories mirrored mine. All of a sudden, I really understood the saying, “The personal is public, and the personal is political.”

GH: When you use NOMAD as a platform, you don’t often talk about the formal issues of sculpture. Inevitably you’re speaking about the African American experience, sometimes to a white audience.

DM: I think speaking to an audience that mirrors and reflects you validates their feelings, while speaking to people who are not mirroring you allows them to have their own awakening, their own realization, and to speak through the piece again, to share their story. That, to me, is a really interesting engagement. I don’t necessarily talk in formal terms because the work is only complete when it elicits a response. What we were seeking was not the shell of a house, it was engagement with the community, and we never got that, so it was a Band-Aid on a wound that really is deep. To go back to the deepest part of that wound is something that America hasn’t done yet. I am able to sit on that porch and share those stories and have people understand that there is a thread, that I’m connected to you, that my pain is your pain, that your pain is my pain, and until we get to that place where we understand that and have empathy, that wound is still going to fester. To me, art can be healing, because it allows that space to happen.

GH: What did you do for the Harrison House’s Art & Ecology program?

DM: When Eva Soltes saw NOMAD, she was struck by how beautifully it fit her vision for the new Arts & Ecology site. She was excited that I could manifest those ideas in something three-dimensional and during the heat of the summer. site is a couple of acres, and its groundwork was already started before I got there. The compost toilet was in place, some trees had been planted, she had shaded a group of amazing vintage trailers and had started the framework of a solar shower.

GH: At first, I thought that you had done some really nice decorative work around the site. But weren’t you more like the ecological architect?

DM: In response to Eva’s vision of the site supporting work crews and a community program, I brought the knowledge and experience of how I had shaped NOMAD to be an “art dwelling” and to meet my personal needs. Infrastructure was needed on the site: How does the facility support the work that’s ultimately going to happen there? Shaping that use of space with a tighter organization of resources was something very much in keeping with my work. We developed rest areas, shade, and night lighting while bringing an aesthetic approach that tied the entire environment together, making it a place where people would want to work and gather. We had a major collaboration around Eva’s idea of making a sunken garden within the old wooden horse corral. In concert with the building of the garden, I transformed the surround into an assemblage fence called “Three Sistahs Dreamin’ of Earthworms Dancin’.” It combines reclaimed wooden forms from the Harrison House straw bale vault with an embellishment of colorful glass bottles, creating a space that is much deeper than just decoration. I’ve always hoped that NOMAD would facilitate my being in a place that ordinarily couldn’t cater to an artist because it didn’t have the infrastructure. With NOMAD, I could be within a community and help manifest their ideas and dreams. One of the principles of permaculture is “care for the earth, and care for the people.” It’s just as important to grow the community as it is to grow the food. What does it take for someone to put a seed in the ground and nurture the plant, and what is the support system for that person to do the work? Here, I’ve set an aesthetic seed and a functional seed.

George Howell is a writer in California.