By Michelle Trauring
Multi-media artist Bastienne Schmidt is what some might call a history buff—a childhood passion fostered by her father, who was an archeologist, from a very young age while growing up in Germany and Greece. In her adult life on the East End, she found herself drawn to the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum—which was originally owned by merchant Benjamin Huntting, who made his fortune with whale oil—and its 3,000 artifacts. Before Ms. Schmidt knew it, she was scouring the collection—a process familiar to her from watching her father—and sourcing material for her newest exhibition, “Archeology of Time,” on view starting Sunday at the museum, as part of the Parrish Art Museum’s fifth annual Parrish Road Show.
The artist recently caught up with The Sag Harbor Express, explaining the genesis of the exhibition, her creative roots and even the launch of her sixth book, “Typology of Women.”
The Sag Harbor Express: What was the inspiration for this installation?
Bastienne Schmidt: I was interested in a couple of different aspects. I love the concept of museums in general, especially older museums, as a form of understanding of a particular history through its objects. In a way, I believe that the physicality of these objects—might it be a needle fabricated out of whale bone of a hard-tack that survived for 100 years—carry a potent signifier that is different from reading stories about a period. The passage of time and the fact that a humble, domestic object has survived for that long is in itself nearly miraculous. I was already working on another my own personal project, with concepts of grids, maps, threads and fabrics. It was a natural overlap to continue this process in the Whaling Museum.
Why call it “Archeology of Time”?
“Archeology of Time” means looking at different layers of history and reassigning meaning to them after studying its objects. The past is a fascinating thing, and it becomes more interesting when we weave our present into it.
My father had these long tables in the museum with pieces of terracotta shards in them on the island of Samos. I grew up surrounded by archeology and a culture that cherished simplicity. It all has found its way into my work somehow.
Tell us more about your father’s work. How did it impact you?
My father’s work as an archeologist in Greece deeply informed my love of seeing and processing information. My artistic process is often to redefine and re-assign meaning to objects, some found and some fabricated.
And I am in awe of idea that we can attempt to understand a certain period through just its objects. Watching my father work a terracotta vase that was 3,000 years old is mind blowing. In the end, we are what we leave behind.
For this exhibit, what was the material-gathering process like?
I went a few times to see the collection, and there was a natural gravitation toward a certain material. I am in love with strings and textiles, so particular objects that incorporated these aspects became interesting to me. And I love humble everyday objects.
Also the aspects of the male and female ways of living in a particular time interested me. The men on the boats, they knew how to sew because they had to fix the sails. And the women that were left behind in the family home with the children, sometimes for very long periods of time—at the end of the whaling era, these trips lasted up to two years—they had to fend for themselves.
I also picked another object made of thread: it’s called a black jack. It looks quite innocent—two thread balls on a string—but it was used as a weapon on the boat. Another piece I chose is a log. They are not as exciting in terms of description of the daily life, as one might imagine, but it gives you a good overlook of the mundane life on the boat. I read an interesting diary of a young girl from New Bedford who went whaling with her whole family for several years. Sometimes, the husband and whaling captains decided it’s better to take the family along, but that was the exception.
What is the range of work in the exhibition?
Some pieces are long and narrow, they measure 44-inches-by-120-inches. I see them as “grid maps,” going back to the earlier sailing maps, but in a very loose, imaginary manner. These objects are made with thin cotton muslin and tracing paper that I draw and paint on, or thread over.
Every object that I created has several physical layers to them—it’s another hidden archeology. I had two museum display cases built, where I am going to create a dialogue between my own objects and the museum objects. And then I am building a papier-mâché boat, just as a reminder of how fragile everything was in terms of travel and purely surviving these trips.
How did you discover your preferred medium/media?
I always have been a mixed media artist. For a number of years, it was more feasible to make a living as a photographer; I traveled for many European magazines to work on social documentary projects. Today, my work incorporates different media, from fabric to drawing, painting and photography. I see it as the ability to speak different languages. The same story happens when people ask you, “Where is your home?” I have more than one home and the freedom of mixing the media is that: where I feel at home.
Speaking of limitless creative bounds, congratulations on your recent book launch! What is the backstory?
A book is a beautiful object to tell a story and to carry it with you. A lot of times, a book remains much longer a part of the public dialogue than an exhibition. I love the process of making books.
In my latest series and book, “Typology of Women,” I am showing a series of hand-painted cut-outs that represent silhouettes of different types of women. The term “typology” has been consciously chosen, as it refers to the study or the systematic classification of types that share certain characteristics. The comparison of forms and the study thereof is based on well-known artistic working principles. These silhouettes in luminous orange also show a feminist and ironic twist to the reading of Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex.” I refer to the outline drawings of ancient Greek ceramics, as well as to Japanese woodcuts, to fairytales and to American pop culture.
Have you been creative since you were a child?
I was born in Germany, but artistically speaking, I am drawing much more from Greece. I go back to my Greek island every summer. The light, archeology, the architecture, the shades of blue continue to be a rich source of inspiration. But also I travel a lot. Traveling affords one the opportunity to see anew.
What do you hope people take away from your work?
I let the viewer decide. A creative piece is always open ended, a bit mysterious, but that’s what makes it exciting, too.