Jodie Mim Goodnough
JODIE MIM GOODNOUGH
My Time In Wassaic
I’m an interdisciplinary artist who’s originally from New Jersey but has lived on and off in Rhode Island for over 10 years. I teach photography at Salve Regina University, and I got my MFA at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 2013. I came to Wassaic on the strong recommendation of a good friend who did a residency here. I generally prefer residencies that are out in the country — I find I need the mental and physical space in the summers.
I work across media but my background is in photography. I also incorporate video, sculpture, sound, performance for video, and installation, depending on the project and what it calls for. My time here was almost entirely spent on the construction of a new (as of yet unnamed) piece made out of tarp, created to reference the shape of a girl’s canopy bed. It will eventually have a video projection component as well, which I’m starting to work on now.
Wassaic has been so lovely – I tried to tell someone I met the other day that there were I think 11 residents in July (plus a gaggle of interns and a full staff) and we all got along, but he didn’t believe me. It’s true! Collaborations have happened spontaneously, as have critiques and conversations about all sorts of things. Many pizzas were eaten at The Lantern and a ton of coffee was consumed. It’s far from nearly everything, but somehow also only two hours from the city. Be warned, the train is loud.
with Lucy Commoner, April 2019
You were awarded a Wassaic residency in the summer of 2018. How did the experience at the Wassaic Project and your exposure to the natural beauty of this area influence your work?
As my work tends to be about the influence of the environment on one’s mental state; thinking about this is actually pretty meta. I really only apply to residencies that are outside of the city, because green space helps me think. It allows me to slow down enough to let my brain really wander, which I don’t have time to do during the year while I’m teaching, commuting, etc. I go to nature to make work about how being in nature is important.
You predominantly work in photography, which you have incorporated into video, performance, sculptural, and installation pieces.How has your use of photography changed over the past 10 years of working in the medium?
In the past 10 years, photography has gone from the main product of my work to a tool that helps me get to the final piece. I used to do straight photography, whether it be documentary or narrative, where the final result was always a print on paper. That gradually became less and less satisfying, and over time I’ve become braver in trying things I may fail at, like sculpture, 3D rendering, video, etc. I still think in images, they’ve just become more complex in the way they interact, and I’ve found new ways to use them.
Light and fabric (and light coming through fabric) are elements in your work. Can you speak to how you use light as a photographer and the incorporation of fabric in your practice?
Most photographers I know are obsessed with light. We Instagram the light that lands on our ceilings in the morning. We talk with reverence about the difference between the light on the east coast and the light out west.
Light is the thing that makes everything else I do possible. The fabric I print on changes the light that goes through it in intensity and color, and the light changes the way we experience the fabric. It’s an exciting thing to work with for me, as it gives me a way to merge images with the environment in which they live, instead of just placing them on a wall in front of the viewer.
In this installation, Danvers State Hospital, also from your Prospect series, you are juxtaposing a view of nature with an image of a building inserted into nature. What is the relationship between these two pieces and what meaning would you like the viewer to take away from this thought-provoking installation?
This piece, Danvers State Hospital, is in some ways the flip side of the Northampton piece. In Northampton I wanted to show you something like what the original patients might have seen, knowing that it was likely very different back then, but hoping to depict a similar beauty and wildness. However, in both Danvers and Northampton, as well as other sites I’ve visited, what’s actually behind me when I’m photographing is typically condos and high-end apartments. When I visited Danvers, they were in the process of building out the site beyond the main building, perching new homes on the ridge to take advantage of the view.
I wanted to interrupt the beauty of some of the other sets of images to point out more directly the economics of the land these hospitals used to occupy, and to ask people to think about our current system. Mental illness hasn’t disappeared, so where are people going when things are dire? Unless they’re wealthy, it certainly isn’t idyllic. I hadn’t shown this set of images before, but the site here at Wassaic seemed to be a perfect place to locate it. The imagery on the panels seems to be meant for the rough space of the mill. I’m happy I got to show them.
with Joe Brommel, April 2019
Can you say a little more about your path into the contemporary art world? I like how you put it in the pre-inter — that it was “inevitable" but required some “necessary meandering," so to speak.
Yeah, there was a lot of meandering.
I grew up right outside New York City and going to museums with my mom. So I was exposed to contemporary art really young. We would go to MoMA, we would go to the Met, galleries — she was really into it.
But I grew up lower middle class, so I was always taught that I had to get a good, safe job with health insurance. That was the goal. So I did photography all through high school for four years, but I didn’t apply to art school. I was like "no, be responsible, be a grown-up." But then, in undergrad, I ended up doing graphic design, because I thought “oh, that’s the responsible version of art, right?” And I liked it for the first year, but I think that was just because I loved living in New York City.
I stayed at that job for almost seven years, because I got to live in New York, but then I had basically a freak-out and left the city and joined Americorps, because I didn’t know what I was doing with my life. So I did two years of Americorps, and the second year was at a gallery, SPACE Gallery in Portland, ME. I got to watch the exhibitions rotate through every month, to sit with them and see people making really interesting interdisciplinary work that came from images, which is what I was already interested in. And it brought me back around full circle.
That was in 2007. After that I went to the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies up there, thinking, “ok, so I’m gonna do documentary photography.” And I did some, but it didn’t feel right. It felt like I was telling someone else’s story in shorthand, never really understanding what they were dealing with. It just felt weird. There’s a whole history of othering people through documentary photography. It’s the parachute effect. Coming in and telling a story and leaving. And I felt really uncomfortable with that. The only thing I can really feel comfortable making work about is stuff that comes from my own experience. I am what I am: I’m a lower middle-class white lady from New Jersey.
So after Salt I got it in my head that I was gonna go to grad school — bite the bullet and I jump back to what I was interested in when I was ten. I still remember seeing Rauschenberg’s bed in MoMA and thinking “that’s so cool!” So I moved back to Rhode Island and I started working at in Visual Resources at Brown's library. I was just scanning slides and editing them, but it was a really cool opportunity to just sit with art history for two years. And while I was doing that I was applying to grad school and looking at what I wanted to do and why. It was definitely a really strange path to get there, but I ended up at SMFA, which is a really theory and performance-heavy program, which was exactly what I wanted. So I ended up in the right place I think. And I don’t think I would’ve gotten to that place without all those other weird steps.
So to take a few steps back there, at one point you mentioned liking to sit with the work in the SPACE Gallery. Which speaks to something interesting about your artistic process: the need to slow down and live with certain pieces before those childhood memories of your artistic experiences come out. Can you talk a little more about that?
So, technically I was a volunteer coordinator at SPACE. But what I really liked doing was gallery sitting. Whenever they needed me to gallery sit I would. I remember Taryn Simon’s Innocents project was in our gallery for a month: it was these large-format images on the wall, looking at the criminal justice system and the way images are used to classify people and how people can be wrongfully convicted through image arrays. If I saw that exhibition in a museum I’d be like, “that’s really cool, the photos are beautiful,” and then it would be replaced with something else in my vision five seconds later. But I gallery sat for that exhibition a lot. There was rarely anyone in the gallery, so I would spend all of this time walking around the room, reading the stories, looking at the work, thinking about photography, thinking about the way photography is used, thinking about representation — and it was able to really sink deep into me. It reminded me that that world was really where I belonged.
And how does that play into your research process more generally? You called it “a little all over the place” and cited things like A Field Guide to Getting Lost as well as “biophilia” and “forest medicine.”
It’s like the internet rabbit hole: you start looking at one thing, and it leads to the next thing , and it leads to the next thing, and all of a sudden you’re looking at squirrel behavior in New Hampshire.
I think it all starts with an interest in psychology for me. That’s sort of the weird floating backbone of all of it. I’m interested in the way we experience the world. I’m interested in how we experience trauma. And there’s mental illness in my family, so I’ve always had an interest in how these things become “wrong,” how they become disorders vs. coping mechanisms vs. criminal actions. There’s these different levels of what it is to be a person in society — you try to find all and obey all of those rules for how we’re supposed to behave, but what happens when you don’t understand those rules, or don’t feel like they should apply in some places?
In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Solnit talks a lot about place, and about the experience of being in a place. And forest therapy is about the way our natural environment affects our emotions vs. the built environment. So all of it is about our subjective experience in this — whatever this is that we’re in.
So I follow rabbit holes pretty frequently. My graduate school thesis project was a series of portraits of people who had taken psychiatric medication and had a diagnosis. I photographed them twice: once in a typological style, and once in the style of contemporary advertising for psychiatric drugs. And that led me to reading Sander Gilman, and that led me to the architecture of the institution, and that led me to the landscape that that architecture was placed in, and then that led me to forest therapy. So it took five years for that to happen, because in the meantime I’m reading these little tangents on, like, if you’re in a hospital and you have a brick wall outside your window versus trees it changes how fast you recover, things like that. If I wasn't an artist, I would probably have ended up being an academic anyway — I just am fascinated by all of it and I just want to read about it and then tell everyone all the cool things I learned.
How does that research process play into what you’re working on here in this residency, then? And what have you been working on?
It’s a little bit weird, and a bit of a jump for me. I think I always wanted to be an installation artist, before I knew what that actually meant. Whenever I would go to a museum as a kid, I was always drawn to sculpture and installation. But for some reason I just didn’t think I could do it. I didn’t think it was in my skillset at all; I always made images. But my images have, over the past two or three years, started to morph into more installation-based work. I‘ve been printing on fabric and making these large fabric pieces. I made a tent recently, I made a folding screen, I started taking my images and printing them on other materials and then making them into larger sculptural objects. That was the stepping stone to this, where I’m basically making a sculptural object out of fabric like I have been, but with no images involved. That’s the jump. It’s not photography-based at all, which is weird for me.
With this tarp piece, I’m trying to find where my personal experience is in what I’m making. I feel like my childhood is always in the back of my brain somewhere, but I don’t think about it until somebody else tells me. This looks like a canopy bed, and when I was a kid I had one, but I had the polyester flammable Kmart version of the glamorous thing I'd seen in books. As a child I was always trying to create circumstances I wasn’t living in, to create this fantasy life where everything was great, where my life was fine. I would read tons of books and read fairy tales — The Secret Garden was my favorite book because it was about this fantasy place where there’s no adults and children are self-sufficient practically and on their own. I would hide all the time, too — I had forts, I had hiding places, I literally had a little tin shed lean-to against the garage that was like my clubhouse. It was just gross. That's sort of the story of my growing up: trying to emulate something better than what I had, always trying to make something that looks like the thing that you want because you can’t get the thing that you want. So the blue tarp is a symbol, to me, of temporary shelter, of protection that’s not really great, but does the job in the moment.
I think a lot about poverty. I didn’t grow up poor but I didn’t grow up comfortable either. We were in debt a lot, my dad worked really hard in retail but it was difficult to make ends meet. And with this piece I keep thinking about other young girls that have less than I did. But who am I to talk about that? I’m a college professor now — I’m not rich, but I’m okay.
It sounds to me like you conceive of yourself less as a photographer, researcher, professor, or “xyz”-er, and more as whatever in a particular moment allows you to best access your personal experience. Does that sound right?
It’s close. I try to find a way to process my personal experience but also make it more universal through research and through placing my own personal experience within a context of the rest of the world. And make it hopefully then also resonate with other people in its own way. I try not to just make diaristic work, and I think that’s where the research comes in. I don’t want the work to be something where you look at it and you think “oh, that’s about that one person’s life only.”
Using your experience as a touchpoint for another project.
Like a catalyst. And as a way to feel less alone in the world. I make work, people respond to it, and then I realize that everyone else is having the same experiences I'm having and I'm not actually some weirdo having reactions to the world that are different from everyone else. We’re all reacting to the world in pretty similar ways, we just don’t talk about it.
When I made that piece in grad school, not only did I have amazing conversations with people at the exhibition, but as I was making it I was connecting with every single person I photographed in really significant ways for me. And it felt like my understanding of other people’s experience changed. I think we need to get out of our own heads and our own experiences and understand that everyone else is having their own individual responses to and experiences with things, and it’s not about us.
That plays into a residency setting very well. In particular, you said that conversations here have helped you “refine your work and understand why you’re making it.” So if the artistic process is, in part, a process of getting outside of your head, a residency allows you to do that, and to have those conversations. Can you talk a little more about that?
Yeah, in my daily life I teach, so I’m mostly trying to impart knowledge that I have. And while I could have made this same piece at home easily, I wouldn't have understood it in the same way and wouldn’t have pushed it in the direction that it’s going now without the conversations with other people. It’s just priceless, it really is. Like, Kathie and JC are in the studio next to mine, and we keep talking about stuff. Kathie is the one that told me I was making work about my childhood.
Everybody’s coming from a different perspective here, everybody’s coming from a different place physically, everybody’s coming from their own background, and hearing different perspectives is really helpful. And I don’t get that at home as often. I have my grad school friends, and we talk about work sometimes, and we meet up, but it’s not the same as being in it every single day when you are trying to focus only on your artwork. There’s no distractions.
Do you think there’s a connection there to your prior work? Thinking about psychiatric hospital spaces not just as places meant to serve a given function, but as places that are influenced by what is even just outside the window.
I purposely look for residencies that are out in nature for that reason because I think that it helps me think better. There are plenty of residencies in cities, but I’ve never really been interested in them because I don’t think I’d get the same amount of work done. But this idea of the place influencing the work — I did a month in South Carolina a couple summers ago and I got obsessed with wisteria because that’s a plant that’s invasive everywhere down there. The place always does have some sort of impact.
This barn feels like a very open shelter. We don’t get rained on, but it’s not very protected; there's birds flying in from outside, an egg fell on Kathie's desk the other day. There’s probably something in that that connects to the work I'm building — the fact that it’s this open structure that theoretically protects you from the elements but really doesn’t.
Can you try and say a little bit more about what that connection might be? Because I was thinking the same thing: you mentioned that this work is a response to the instability of your living conditions as a child. And there does seem to be an obvious connection to the fact that this space isn't this hermetic, closed-off, sealed space.
Well, yeah, it’s aging. It's been repurposed. It’s doing what it needs to do for artists but in a very specific way. You have to know how you’re going to use the space you’re given. This is going to fall down eventually. Nature’s creeping in, and it’s just an endless fight to keep places like this standing. There’s remnants of history everywhere here.
For example, I was looking for a way to hang my piece from the ceiling. I have those new shiny eye hooks up there which I don’t want to use because they don't make sense with the piece. But looking around the barn there are these old crusty painted hooks hanging from beams, and that’s the feeling I need this to have: kind of shoddy but still hanging on.
For some reason I think of that damn tin shed all the time. It was sharp and rusty and dangerous, and I probably shouldn’t have been playing in it. But it worked, it kept the elements out, I got to hide in there. It was kind of like this space: being used for something it wasn’t meant to be used for. It’s about making do with what you have.
Photos by Verónica Gonzalez Mayoral and Jodie Goodnough