In the studio with: Beth Solin
I couldn't be more excited to share a little bit about the work of my dear friend and talented artist Beth Solin. Beth's large-scale sculpture installations explore identity and isolation using innovative materials and casting techniques.
From inspiration to installation
Let me start with this: Half of what installation artist Beth Solin does for a job feels like it comes from inside my own heart. The other half feels like it comes from a different planet.
Instead of writing some words or making a photo or singing a song, Beth converts a suburban garage into a studio. She rigs doors and ventilation systems. She builds structures from pipe and wire and styrofoam and clay. She makes molds of those sculptures — sometimes molds for molds — and ultimately produces stunning, perfectly clear Lucite sculptures with sub-sculptures inside them.
Beth wears masks so she doesn't die. She creates entire structures to help her make her structures. She works with cow bones, and not to make soup.
This, to me, is magic. It's the other half of why I'm a little obsessed.
Out Me In Me Out
Beth's current project, Out Me In Me Out, is a big one. For this five-part installation series in progress, she is producing an extensive group of clear Lucite sculptures, life-size or larger, and expanding on her explorations of identity and culture.
Beth says, "As the series unfolds, each of the five parts will conceptually build upon the next in an effort to express my personal experience in 'the pack.' I am approaching this through re-contextualizing a persistent sensation that has been with me my entire life; a profound outsiderness I felt during my youth, which in later years morphed into feeling like a voyeur, and finally a stranger onto myself, the ultimate voyeur on the outside of my own body looking in.
"What strikes me with great force is the realization that humans as an animal group seem to be headed down a similar path. I do ultimately have faith in our desire and ability to connect. But when I think about the direction in which humanity is heading regarding its sexuality, connectivity, and survival instincts, and look at this within the context of the age we are living, (the age of rapid fire imagery, cyber communication, and an obsession with 'the self'), I am left with an unrelenting thought. No longer are we an interdependent roaming herd searching for the greater whole. Instead, we are becoming millions of lone wolves disoriented and roaming, forced by lack of space to stand close, with no greater whole in sight."
Part one of Out Me In Me Out will include the following life-size figures and components, hand sculpted in clay, and then cast in Lucite: Normal Human Female (pictured above), Fragmented Human Female (process pictured below), Cow-Milking-Bucket With Vagina, Vaginal Canal and Milk, Rodent-sized Fly Drinking Milk (fly detail below, along with vascular detail), and Pools and Clouds of Lucite Milk to be poured on site.
Making it happen
Work like this — wildly labor- and time- and love-intensive work — gets made for only one reason. It's because the artist can't help but make it.
Work like this takes funding. Beth has secured grants and fellowships for past installations through The Pollock–Krasner Foundation, The Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, and The Eben Demarest Trust Fund.
She raised start-up funds for Out Me In Me Out through an oversubscribed Kickstarter, and, given the large and specialized nature of the project's materials and methods, the need for funding will continue in tandem with its creation.
Five questions for Beth Solin
We caught up with Beth to ask about her sources of inspiration, physically demanding production process, day-to-day studio habits, and more.
Let’s talk about the progression from feeling of outsiderness, to voyeurism, to stranger onto yourself, and how that journey led to your current project.
Carolyn, when you asked me to talk about my artistic journey from this particular standpoint, it challenged me in that the subject matter has always been something I have felt would be frowned upon to discuss. Frowned upon by certain people in my life. Therefore your question is extremely interesting to try and answer in a way that is vague, yet still engaging. Especially since the beautiful thing about the installations that I make, is that for me, they, in the clearest most direct way “say it all,” without using one single word.
In my earlier years, there were human interactions that I had which made me very uncomfortable with being a woman, or even a person. I myself exacerbated this by how over-perceptive I was regarding societal roles, who I felt I was, who I was told I was, and who I was expected to become. I began to see myself as “not right” and an outsider both in my own body, and from society at large. Yet this had nothing to do with what I could or couldn’t feel on an emotional and physical level. I felt and still feel everything profoundly. But spiritually, it’s taken me years of introspection to truly like how I feel in my body, be at ease with who I am, and believe that this body I inhabit is truly mine.
This outsiderness did however provide me with a hyper-analytical, perceptive, and sensitive mind, one that was always looking in, and continues to do so, from an ever-changing distance and vantage point. I see the expression on people’s faces and their body language almost too clearly. And I see the way in which one human action, feeling, and physical presence, blend together with those of others. Just as my memories do not exist in a vacuum, but instead among the memories of others I shared particular experiences with, good and bad. Human existence seems to be a vibrating entity of action and reaction in a spiral of the past, present, and future, all at once. For the brain can experience “the now,” but it doesn’t reside there.
Of course, all of this loops back into my artwork, and specifically with the series I am working on now, Out Me In Me Out. I perceive there to be a loneliness and isolation in our society that has spread across the globe. At the risk of coming off as if I am transferring the feelings of my own past onto my view of the world, I can’t help but point out the similarity between what the world looks like to me now, and the way it looked during my childhood. There seems to be among humans, a growing sense of disconnectedness from the body, and somewhat of a fracturing of the human pack. I am referencing the fact that we are pack animals, like wolves and so forth.
As a mother of two, and someone who connects these observations to the pending trajectory of human sexuality, procreation, survival, and evolution, my current Five-Part Installation Series is quite apropos. Every element in this series has purpose regarding "connection" and "deflection," "seduction" and “repulsion.” The poses and placement of the life-size figures, the choices of the animals and their particular sizes, the pathways of the embedded vascular systems, the pools of Lucite milk, and the space left in-between all of the components for the viewers to meander through. Even the viewers themselves become a part of the tension in the installation in the way that they activate the entire piece.
The other activating force is Lucite. There is no other material that conveys the sentiments of this piece so poignantly. It seduces and blends with its ever changing reflections of the viewer, the surrounding light, and outside world. Yet moments later, it repels the viewer with its glare, transparency into nothingness, and refusal to give the eye a place to rest. When Lucite is coupled with the concepts that inform this series, a paradox mirroring itself appears. The paradox of how the material behaves in conjunction with that of the human condition; where the same unconscious behaviors that alienate us from ourselves and others, also strive to connect us with everyone, everything, and who we are.
I am always amazed by the physicality and logistics of your work and often wonder about how this affects the cerebral and emotional process of creating art. Has there been a time in your current project when something about the method didn’t work the way you’d hoped or expected, and it forced you to rethink not only the physical implementation of the project but also something about the vision? Or when you’ve learned something new about the vision as the result of the physical process taking a turn?
My methods fail day in and day out, and this is extremely challenging on many different levels, which I know you can imagine from the thoughtfulness of your question. The first figure completed, Normal Human Female, has by far been the most difficult. I sculpted the preliminary clay head five times, the fourth of which cracked and smashed to pieces because I didn’t have heat in my studio. The clay had developed undetectable fissures all over the place. The day it cracked was the day the figure was so-called “finished,” LOL. Finished with one thousand exclamation marks, and two days before we were supposed to leave for our first-ever long family trip.
I had the whole thing wrapped up, and as I was turning away to leave my studio, I heard a heart-wrenching thud, which was three quarters of the head hitting the floor! My younger son heard me crying from inside the house and came running out to see if I was okay. My older son said to me after I had calmed down, (not having seen that I had already begun to repair the head and face), “So Mom, do you see yourself moving forward with this piece?” Now these two boys were so sweet considering by that point in the installation development, even the mention of that figure made them want to run for the hills, and possibly strangle me.
The bright side of this supposed disaster was that head number five ended up having the best face of them all which was a downright miracle considering I couldn’t even believe face number four resembled me. I find it extremely difficult to correctly render images of myself. Another positive outcome was that I was forced to rethink the internal structural design of the upcoming figures, as well as a million other things.
Most importantly, I became more prepared and thus more professional. I created a warmer and safer work environment, which to be honest, at first I did not feel I deserved. A stronger inner armature for the next figures. And came to the realization that the cracked face had a beauty of its own.
I decided to create a similar cracked face for another figure in the series. There will be sixteen animals in this series, eight of the human, eight of them not. Fractured Human Female — now finished in steel/clay/foam/plaster and ready to be cast in Lucite upon further funding — is a direct result of falling in love with the cracked head of Normal Human Female.
The bigger takeaway: Every detail we overlook in any realm of life almost always comes back to bite us in the ass and usually does so at the most inconvenient time, but in many situations, we can flip it around and turn it into something positive.
Your projects can take years to complete, during which time your own life and perspective, and the world around us, may change substantially. How does that inform your artistic process?
This is tough. Usually my installations take twelve to eighteen months from inception to completion. My current installation series sort of became rooted in my brain way back in 1998. I was getting ready to build two huge, architectural installations which were to contain the figures I am building now. But I decided that those installations didn’t need fabricated figures when the viewers themselves could be the figures.
Skip ahead to 2013 (two years of grad school, one wedding, three very traumatic deaths, and two sons later), I had left Brooklyn, and moved near the Jersey Shore where I live now. It was here that I became obsessed with making those same figures I imagined back in 1998, and so, started my next installation, Out Me In Me Out.
This, unlike my other large-scale installations, is teetering on four years of production already. And I am talking about just Part One of this series! By the time I am finished with Parts Two through Five, I will likely be surpassing ten years of production. It is therefore no accident that each “Part” will be installed as a separate show so that there are exhibitions along the way. Plus each part builds upon the next like a story, using figures from previous parts to construct the new parts.
Every component and figure in each show will be able to be replicated numerous times should the sale opportunity arise. Not only can each mold yield ten replicas, but each replica will have its own unique hand-made vascular system and vary in color and opacity. So this is an ever-evolving piece.
For Part One, Normal Human Female is complete in Lucite and was successfully funded through a $19,000 Kickstarter Campaign. All of the other components are done in clay and ready to be cast in Lucite upon receipt of further funding.
My ideas during these long spans of time stay pretty constant and fresh. There are definitely lulls where ideas sort of deaden, as if they have become half-baked, or even worse, over-thought. I have to be very careful when this happens, since the feeling just sort of creeps into my thoughts and kills my spirit (for a day or two).
Not surprisingly, it can be a real scapegoat for NOT getting things done. It’s the price one pays for working so large. So like sex for an old married couple, you gotta keep it new and exciting! No one is going to do that for you!
Do you listen to music in the studio?
Yes, I listen to music constantly. But sometimes I have to work in complete silence. I have ADD (like everyone and their darn brother). Music can be very distracting. Mostly because I write a ton of poetry and song lyrics, and if I listen to music, I get a little too inspired and start thinking of things to write. But listening to music also helps me with the ADD as well as the stress and anxiety that come along with making my art.
I get very compulsive, and if I don’t have music on, I will check my phone a million times, and check it for a call or text that isn’t even expected. If someone peeked in my studio and saw how many times I checked my phone they would die laughing or think someone else must be making my art for me. I have even gone to the extent of setting my alarm for ten minute increments all day long. So that I could only check my phone when the alarm went off. The flip side is that some distractions are better than others. Better the phone than the racing thoughts about EVERYTHING.
Speaking of distraction, I also embarrassingly binge watch shows here and there. It’s usually when I am doing really boring stuff like sanding. Those giant embedded vascular systems that I mentioned earlier are made from twisted steel wire and hand-dyed resin. They take hours and hours to make. The vascular system for Normal Human Female took 100 hours, and I had to do it twice because the first Lucite casting wasn’t up to par.
Sooooo disgustingly, I binge-watched The Walking Dead while I made them. Gore isn’t even my thing which was perfect because I didn’t have to look, I could just listen to the great story and focus on the sculpture. It cracks me up to make something that is so important to me while watching something so trite, although, the show was in fact, about the survival of the fittest. Not so off-topic.
What would you be if you weren’t a sculptor?
This is the easiest question to answer. I have two things: a singer-songwriter, or a robotics/prosthetics engineer designing smart bionic body parts for people who need them.