Artist Natalie Beall working on a paper collage in her studio.

Where are you from and where do you reside?

I am originally from Atlanta, Georgia. I lived in NYC for twelve years and have lived in the Hudson Valley since 2016.

What was your favorite part of New York?

I love everything about New York except for the drudgery of subway commuting and the difficulty of running the simplest errands—and moving the car for street sweeping. I miss the constant access to galleries and museums. Now when I drive down it’s like a fun field trip, but I have to pick and choose which shows I see. After twelve years of living in the city, I also miss the constant access to friends, although now I see them for occasional weekend visits. In a way I still experience everything I love about New York, only in a condensed fashion. The best parts about living outside of the city are the space and access to nature. It’s a more peaceful, albeit lonelier, place to live.

What's a typical day in the studio like?

A day in the studio might involve working through new ideas in my sketchbook, cutting paper for a collage in progress, layering, and gluing shapes. If I’m in a sculptural mode, I’m experimenting with materials and doing a lot of problem-solving. My studio is a room in my home, so this is all punctuated by coffee breaks and check-ins with my son.

What necessities do you require when making your art?

I’ve always adapted to my many studio situations over the years, but generally a giant table is a must-have.

How do you choose your materials?

For this particular series I am basically committed to one type of paper made by Canson because of the variety of colors they manufacture. It’s also just a nice mid-weight paper. I found it back when New York Central Art Supply was open in the East Village. The glue I use is a Ph-neutral adhesive. For sculptures, I work with a wide variety of materials including fabric, cardboard, paper pulp, epoxy clay—I like materials that can be manipulated without any heavy machinery and that allow for improvisation.

How do the different elements come together in your works?

It’s definitely a process of trial and error. I’ll start with a sketch and work in a layered way, from back to front, large shapes to small details. I think about color combinations and will usually choose three or four colors to start. Everything is subject to change. Nothing gets glued down until the whole composition is in place. For my sculptures, it’s really a wrangling with the materials, and usually the final object ends up being a combination of my original idea plus my struggle with the materials that forces me to be more inventive.

How has your work developed in the past few years, and how do you see it evolving in the future?

Early on (pre-2005) I made drawings, and then during and after graduate school I started making sculptures and installations, and right now I am focused on these collages. In a way the collages are a marriage of drawing and sculpture, in that the images are constructed and layered. In the future I will continue to make sculptures alongside works on paper, as the process remains intriguing and central to my line of thinking. Real objects are the basis for my work, and it makes sense that on some level I am working in three dimensions.

Did you go to art school?

I received my BFA from the University of Georgia and my MFA from Columbia University. When I entered college as a freshman, I thought I’d study art history. Then, I took a freshman seminar on contemporary art and realized that the best possible use of my time was to make things. I never had a special mentor, but I was influenced by many teachers and visiting artists. Those grad school critiques still haunt me sometimes. I have mixed feelings about MFAs in general, but overall earning mine was a valuable experience–my work changed a lot during those two years and set me on my current course.

Any particularly haunting anecdotes from critique? Any lightbulb moments from critique?

In my first year of graduate school a professor told me to “go beyond image”, which sounds really vague, but that comment has always stayed with me. At the time, it made me question what I was trying to represent and spurred me to start experimenting with sculpture. I also remember a fellow student saying my work was “mute” which they didn’t intend as a positive. Now that I’m thinking back on that comment, it brings up questions about art and communication. My favorite art evokes more than it speaks, and I can more confidently own up to that now. I also remember in my second year of graduate school when all of these different ideas seemed to synthesize and I started making installations with pared-down forms interacting with one another. I received positive feedback from fellow students and professors, but I also felt something finally clicking. I remember having the naïve belief after graduate school that I had found my mature work and this was it. Of course, my work evolves still and I hope I will continue to ask myself difficult questions along the way.

When did you begin your current practice?

I’ve been making art seriously since getting my BFA in 2004, but in graduate school (2007–2009) my work took a turn towards abstracting functional objects through installation. Then, around 2013 I started working within a more limited set of materials and creating stand-alone sculptures. The Index of Form series first evolved during a residency on Fishers Island, NY called The Lighthouse Works in 2014.

My favorite art evokes more than it speaks, and I can more confidently own up to that now.

Natalie Beall

Why did you choose to work with cut paper?

I made a few collages using found images back in 2010 as experiments but didn’t really pursue the medium again until 2014. I had recently seen the Matisse cut outs show at MoMA which I think many artists were inspired by. I knew I was going on the residency for six weeks and figured I would bring some colored paper with me to have something more manageable to work on between sculptures. It was really freeing to work on these smaller two-dimensional pieces with a limited set of materials, and I originally conceived of them as an index of the forms I was creating in three dimensions.

What led you to this process and how did you know it was the right one to pursue?

I’ve always worked from reference images, even early on. The ways in which the things I observe get translated into my own visual language has become more streamlined over the years, but there’s still a mysterious part of the creation process that happens during those intuitive, trial and error moments.

What are some themes you find recurring in your pieces, intentional or not?

Objects from the domestic realm is definitely a recurring theme, as well as objects with questionable functions, or objects that are obsolete. I’m interested in the line between functional and non-functional, and what happens to an object when it loses its functionality. What are the possibilities for inanimate objects? Can objects be reimagined and transcend their original functions? Also, holes and patterned grates appear fairly consistently in my work as entry and exit points and allusions to mystery functions.

I expound on these themes more in a conversation I had with artist Catherine Czacki for the publication Possible Press in 2015. In that conversation I wrote about interior space as “simultaneously freeing and stifling space". In addition to the psychological and political aspects of the interior, I also think about the metaphysical aspects–there's something both active and dormant about an interior, hints of life behind stillness which attract me to objects that have potential for other purposes...I often think of a character who parallels my work in the studio. She exists in another, non-specific time, and she lives alone (interiority), working with the materials she has on hand to populate her home with objects of questionable function (still life). While it’s true that women in our culture are no longer as a rule relegated to the home, statistics speak to the persistence of unequal divisions of household labor even when both partners are educated and work outside the home. I grew up watching my mom in the role of homemaker for several years, where she found a creative outlet in sewing and decoration. By taking away the “use value” of these efforts and instead making art, there’s an attempt at freedom from this holding pattern, but also the potential for transformation in a deeper sense–the “state changes” you mention. I think this is why I’m so interested in emptiness in “cusp objects”. Emptiness signals a thing ignored, undervalued, not in use. Since nothing is really empty (space, air), emptiness becomes more of an invitation.”

Looking back on what I wrote in 2015 (pre-move), I am struck by how I am now more literally inhabiting the character I write about. I am often alone in my house, preoccupied by populating that house with inanimate objects (both actual furnishings as well as the art I make).

What is the most difficult part of the artistic process for you?

The most difficult part of my process is arriving at a successful image. It’s also the most rewarding and fun part, though. If a particular piece isn’t working out, I’ll often leave it alone for days or weeks and come back to it later. Nothing is finished until it declares its presence.

Completion or the state of being finished is a hard quality to define - how does presence relate to your own definition of completion?

It’s a feeling of recognition and acceptance of the image or form—it’s intuitive but also has to do with achieving a balance of formal elements with a sense that the image is giving something away, but not too much. Its origins from the world are present, but it has achieved a new identity.

There’s something both active and dormant about an interior, hints of life behind stillness which attract me to objects that have potential for other purposes.

Natalie Beall

Are there any aspects of your process that are left to chance?

Absolutely. I’ll start with a sketch, but as I start to work with the materials, the form will inevitably evolve. My work ends up being way more interesting because of this kind of improvisation—I’ll end up with something I never could have pre-imagined.

What do you like to sketch?

Sketching is always the starting point and usually begins with observations of an object or photograph of an object. I was just working on some sketches on the train of objects I saw in thrift stores upstate. These are really fast drawings, and I usually make several small mock-ups of potential images on one page of my sketchbook. The evolution of the form begins during this process, but it’s completed once I actually begin working with materials.

Where do you find your day-to-day inspiration?

Back when I lived in the city I would often find inspiration on the street through discarded objects and architectural elements. I was also a frequent visitor to the period rooms at the Met and the Brooklyn Museum. Now that I live upstate, I don’t walk on the street as much, so I am forced to seek out inspiration a bit more–I’m a big fan of exploring antique stores in search of mystery objects. I am also close to a couple of Shaker museums–the Shakers have been an obsession for me for a while.

Are you familiar with Furnishing Utopia

I just looked it up, and I am seriously coveting those objects. What’s interesting to me about Shaker objects is as much about the community and their beliefs as the design itself. It was attractive to early modernists and continues to be attractive to designers and artists, but strict beliefs shaped those designs. Their adage was “Hands to work, hearts to God”, so anything they labored on was also a form of worship. There is a spirit in Shaker objects that goes beyond good design. They also had very progressive beliefs–they were feminists, abolitionists, pacifists. I live within an hour of New Lebanon and Hancock, and I’ve visited them both in the past year. This summer, I participated in a reading of Mother Ann Lee’s testimony organized by The Shaker Museum in New Lebanon for the 24 Hour Drone at Basilica Hudson. Reading her text was eye-opening. I have the conception of Shakers as these peace-loving communistic people, but Lee, their founder, was a pretty strict person morally speaking.

Generally, what objects are you most interested in representing through your works?

My process is rooted in contemplating real things, but I hope that the end result brings up more questions than answers. I like for my work to be suggestive rather than representational, so I’m open to others’ interpretations. As far as intangible moments, I suppose I’d like to foster a feeling of curiosity about an image/object, and a sense that it’s something.

Since you abstract from the familiar, what forms are you most drawn to as a departure point?

I’m typically attracted to questionable objects that I come across wherever I happen to be. Lately, I’ve been visiting local thrift and antique stores in order to find objects that catch my eye and don’t immediately identify themselves. It’s often a household object—a piece of furniture, or now that I live in the country, some kind of tool or implement. I’m often attracted to empty racks or containers that look like they held something specific. I will usually photograph these objects and use them later in the studio to draw from.

There is a spirit in Shaker objects that goes beyond good design.

Natalie Beall

What’s one of your favorite objects you own? What’s the story?

I have a curved piece of wood with tiny hooks coming out of it that is hanging on my living room wall. It looks like a minimalist piece of art, but it’s an herb drying rack that I found at an antique place. People often think that I made it, but I only wish I did.

Is there any artwork on display in your home/studio? Whose is it?

Yes, I am lucky to have traded with other artists over the years, so I have paintings by Jaqueline Cedar, Jamie Felton, and Jesse Weiss hanging in my house, as well as a wall sculpture by Katie Bell and a carved marble sculpture made by Catherine Czacki for my wedding in 2012. I recently traded with Kingston, NY-based artist Valerie Piraino who is a good friend and fellow Columbia alum, and one of her drawings is now in the dining room. We also have many artists books in our collection.

Do you admire or draw inspiration from any of your peers who are also working now?

I know so many amazing artists with a wide-variety of practices that I respect and admire. An artist I’m looking at right now, although I don’t know her personally, is Diane Simpson–she’s been making work since the 70s, but I discovered her work a couple of years ago. She makes sculptures and drawings derived from clothing and utilitarian objects. I also admire Jessi Reaves’ furniture sculptures which were in the last Whitney Biennial. I have collaborated in the past with artist and friend Catherine Czacki, as well as on books with artist Denise Schatz and her Miniature Garden publishing project, but for the most part I work alone. Working through formal ideas is such an individual process.

Are you influenced by any author or non-visual artist?

I’m a big fan of the ultra-concise writing of Lydia Davis and of the short story form in general. I was obsessed with Flannery O’Connor for a long time–her characters are both ordinary and strange and often have spiritual revelations. Karen Russell is a great contemporary short story writer whose writing is along the southern gothic/magic realism lines.

Do you remember the first work of art that captured your attention?

I grew up visiting the High Museum in Atlanta where I was inspired by many different works of art. They have a great folk art collection, so work by southern artists like Howard Finster were always compelling to me early on. I also have a memory of an Adolph Gottlieb painting at the High that was perhaps the first abstract work I connected with as a young person. I found it again online–the title of the painting is Duet and it’s of two glowing pink and orange orbs over a tangle of brown brushstrokes. I remember being transfixed by it and having a quasi-spiritual experience in front of it.

Journal: Natalie Beall: Gallery