Bastienne Schmidt lives in a series of grids.
As a child, she found them in the cigarette boxes that housed shards of ancient terra cotta, painstakingly organized by her archeologist father. She ran through them in their garden on Samos, basking in the Grecian Isle sun while foraging for materials that caught her eye. She felt free, and loved, with every opportunity to explore.
As an adult, her photography work would take her to Italy and, eventually, the United States, where every image existed within the grid of her camera — and, now, her art.
But for the German-born, Bridgehampton-based artist, the grid is more than a tool, or a visual construct, or even a memory.
It is a means of survival.
“I have to segment the world into grids to really understand my way of moving in the world,” Schmidt explained. “I don’t see very well — I’m nearly blind in one eye — and I’ve never saw it as a limitation. I’ve had that since I was a child. So this idea of the grid is very helpful because my brain operates that way. The grid is, in a way, a study on how to orient yourself in the world.”
It is a never-ending journey, she said, as is her artistic process, which she explores once more in her seventh monograph, “Grids and Threads” — a minimalist meditation on the concept of white space and its perception — that she will discuss on Friday, March 29, at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill.
“At the end of the day, I do love the process of making other people understand my process,” she said. “It’s something that I value a lot. It’s the necessary evil that you have to overcome yourself, and your own shortcomings, to go out to the world and make them understand your process.”
Inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s “Three Standard Stoppages” — which examines the arbitrary nature of any given measurement — the five-year project is divided into two distinctive halves, Schmidt explained.
The first features photographs of colorful installations juxtaposed against a blanket of snow, while the second half of mixed media, white-on-white works draw light and shadow onto the Arches paper, where punched 8-inch-by-8-inch grids are divided into 1-inch spaces.
“It has a clarity and construct,” Schmidt said of the body of work. “The geometry is very soothing, but on the other hand, I add a dash of something else to it that it doesn’t feel antiseptic, that it doesn’t feel too rigid, and that added element is the lines are a little bit crooked, or when you sew a line or punch a hole, there’s always a slight diversion of the line. These are, for me, the elements that make it humanlike in scale and in emotion.”
An amalgam of German intellect and Mediterranean flair, Schmidt said her single-greatest source of inspiration is Greece itself — its whites and blues in the architecture, and the surrounding sea. There, she was always drawing as a child, she said, with one foot in her everyday surroundings, and the other someplace else.
“I came from a big family — we were five siblings altogether — but I felt very shy,” she said. “I was the quiet observer. I think that’s very helpful as a child, when you have these tools that you draw with, because you can be in a place and just be there, but also be in your own world.”
As she grew into her voice, Schmidt never doubted she would be an artist, she said, and neither did her parents.
“I was one of these people where my passion was so strong — and I have to give incredible credit to my parents,” she said. “They never said, ‘You have to do this and that.’ They said, ‘You can do whatever you want, but it’s on you. You do it, and you have to make a living.’”
With their blessing in mind, and heeding their warning, Schmidt first moved to Italy, and then the United States, where she practiced her art on the side while working as a professional photographer, often traveling abroad to Latin America.
“When you’re a young person, it takes a lot more guts to be out in the world and also to feel accepted. With photography, it was easier in the beginning, that’s for sure,” she said. “Every photograph is kind of an internal grid; it has a rectangular shape. When I photographed way earlier, in Latin America, I photographed a lot in the cemeteries, where you have these walls and it’s like a pure grid.
“I think it’s this internal thing that’s already in you,” she continued. “For me, my father had these cigarette boxes where he lined up these pieces of terracotta and I carried this with me as a memory. In Latin America, something triggered it and it just came back into my painting and drawing at a much later point — which is also interesting, how we work consciously and also subconsciously.”
Harkening back to her childhood, Schmidt still scavenges for materials, collecting old T-shirts that she shreds and dyes, and often unearths treasures at the Sag Harbor Variety Store to incorporate in her work.
“It reminds me of one of these little stores in Greece, where you find everything. You just go to it and you think, ‘Oh, this is a really cool thing I could use in my artwork,’” explained Schmidt, who has lived on the East End for 18 years. “It’s funny. I said I was going to stay in America for seven or eight years, and then I never left. Life happens while you make other plans.”
Trading the year-round warmth of Greece for harsher New York seasons — at first reluctantly, but now enthusiastically — Schmidt broke old rules and created new boundaries with her “Grids and Threads” installations, anxiously awaiting every Nor’easter with her art supplies and camera at the ready.
“I’m not a huge fan of cold and snow, but the interesting thing is, the minute you have an idea for an art project, everything becomes reversed,” she said. “I was very excited and looking forward to new snowstorms every year. This year, sadly or thankfully, we didn’t have a big one yet, but it gives you new opportunities to think outside of the box.”
After any given storm, Schmidt would wander out into nature — not far from her home in Bridgehampton — and arrange her installations using found materials and minimalist colored threads, with one “signaling color,” typically orange or red.
“For me, it’s a color that you don’t shy away from,” she said. “You say, ‘Here I am, you have to look at me.’”
The white-on-white drawings are far more subdued, she said, but equally complex and textured. Working from within an extremely constrained space, what happened inside the grid was her freedom, bouncing between the two ideals.
“The language of white, to see white as a space, is also a fascinating phenomenon,” she said. “On the one hand, it might seem very reductive as a palate, but there are probably as many shades of white as there are any other colors in the spectrum.”
A thesis in 76 images, “Grids and Threads” stands as a communication between photography, drawing and painting, Schmidt said. But it also connects place, language and theory, she said.
“To have it out in the world, it’s like giving birth each time, in a way,” she said of the monograph. “And it’s a beautiful journey, because now with a book, you feel like it can proliferate in so many different ways. It’s not that I have to be always involved. The book can have a life of its own, and I’m very appreciative about that.”
Artist Bastienne Schmidt will discuss and sign her new monograph, “Grids and Threads,” on Friday, March 29, at 6 p.m. at the Parrish Art Museum, located at 279 Montauk Highway in Water Mill. Admission is $12, or free for members, children and students. For more information, call (631) 283-2118 or visit parrishart.org.