Julia Norton





My Time in Wassaic


Wassaic is unlike any residency that has existed before, and any that will come after. I knew this before coming in because I have been involved with them as a resident and beyond for many years prior. However this time around it has sunk in deeper about just how special and unique it is. It attracts just the right kind of weirdos, who hover in its orbit long after they leave like moths to a flame. It is hard to leave because the sense of belonging it provides you with is difficult to shake off. Re-entry to the “real world” is somehow more intense after, because when time is up at Wassaic it hits you that this is how artists should live and run their communities. This was my second time as a resident, and the second time making some serious long-time friends. As an artist, it’s generative in just the right way. It almost sneaks up on you, because you’re so distracted with the beauty and the magic of what’s surrounding you, the inspiration kind of just happens in a way that’s both natural and surprising.


2018 Summer Exhibition
2018 Summer Residency
2016 Summer Exhibition
2014 Summer Residency
2013 Summer Exhibition




with Joe Brommel, August 2018

You've been involved with the Wassaic Project for quite a while, right?

Yes. I was in the summer exhibition first, in the summer of 2013, and then I did the residency immediately after grad school in 2014. At that time I was definitely shaking off the ghosts of school, trying to figure out what my joy was in making work again. Not to say I didn't have that before, but I definitely needed to do some self-investigation and rebuild certain amounts of confidence in my voice. So when I was here, I was not really in as much of a work zone as I am now, because I was doing a lot of experimenting — I was working from photographs, I was exploring the area and finding things that I found interesting. It was very generative to have the time to do that away from New York City.

In the four years between that point and now, I've done a lot of other different residences. It works like a recharge, like a boost. Like if I were a Pokémon and I needed to go to the Center to be recharged. It’s unadulterated time to explore and generate new things.

I've also developed a career as an arts educator. It’s taken a lot of time, but I’ve found my little niche for that, in addition to making work on my own and having some shows. Coming back here after four years with a greater sense of myself and my practice and what I need to work has been really helpful this time around. It feels like this is a nice little chapter in my life as an artist.

You mentioned a while back that it took you a little bit to figure out “what your joy was” in making work. So what is “your joy”?

Having fun with it is really important. I think that I took myself a little too seriously after grad school, as many people do. And I also used to work much more preciously with materials, whereas now I’m being a little bit more free, and forgiving myself a little bit more for taking chances that don't necessarily work.

Because grad school is like a pressure cooker — you're expected to have this new, exciting take on your practice for your next crit every few weeks. But when you go out into the world in your own practice, you don't have that bookended structure. You're not necessarily preparing to show your work to a group and have it be up against the firing squad. When I look back four years ago, I wasn’t really in a place to feel that kind of confidence with being okay with failure. I wasn't making that much because I hadn’t learned to do that. And over the past four years I feel like I have. It's amazing how different my time here is now than it was back then.

So tell me specifically a little bit more about your pieces in this year’s summer exhibition. You have a few, right?

Two. Those were from a series from last year called Things That Could Go Wrong in the Holodeck. They were also part of a show that I had in LA, at a space called Dread Lounge.

Those pieces are larger-scale than I'm working now. They’re made of four pieces of gridded paper together and synthetic materials like gouache, China marker, and, in some cases, smoke bombs (which was really fun). That series was all about the beauty and danger of the imagination. Each painting had a wireframe environment similar to the holodeck in Star Trek: The Next Generation, or any wireframed digital space in early computing or in renderings. And each had an action that took place within it — an object that was either being destroyed or evolving in some way. It was referencing glitches in the holodeck, which is the space — I don’t know if you've seen Star Trek

Oh, I’m familiar.

Okay, so in every episode that features the holodeck there's always something that goes wrong. Usually a character comes to life, or someone gets addicted to it — something going wrong that's tied to someone's imaginative space or fantasy space. So I really was trying to explore what that meant. It's very important to have a healthy imagination, but where's the balance between having a healthy imagination and getting carried away with your thoughts? Or getting so deep in your thoughts that you're not living your real life? And where does that balance exist? I don't know the answer to those questions, but that was what the series was exploring.

You also mention on your site that you think of the spaces/paintings you create as “unconquerable arenas.” Can you say more about that?

[Laughs] That was actually for my thesis show. That's an old statement, I don’t know where that still is. But, yeah, I reference a lot of material when I come up with imagery, because the paintings have become steadily more abstract, even if in some cases they’re concrete environments. But for a while, I was looking at obstacle courses. My MFA thesis was based on the TV show Legends of the Hidden Temple, which was on Nickelodeon in the 90s. It was, like, a fantasy adventure game show obstacle course kind of space. It was based on that, Guts, and Double Dare, which was other shows around that time.

I don't remember Guts or Double Dare, but I do remember Legends of the Hidden Temple.

You do?

Oh, yeah. Throwback.

None of those shows exist anymore for kids. There’s American Ninja Warrior and stuff like that. But I was so transfixed by those shows as a kid. And when I was trying to generate imagery for my thesis project, I found I was thinking a lot about emotional, physical struggle, and I kept thinking about imagining your body within a space. Video games have that, too: these glitchy spaces where there's a surface that disappears and reappears based on how close you get to it. And I thought that was really interesting — how to navigate a space that's not real or that could fail you; when you're looking at an image and you're trying to figure out where you live inside of it. Is it a space that you could enter? I guess that's what I meant by “unconquerable.” Because it’s not possible, it exists as a static image — but there's this entryway for the viewer to think about how you would explore that space, and by doing that it puts you within your own body and your own capabilities. But that's an old statement. I need to fix that. That's funny that you referenced that.


It’s very important to have a healthy imagination, but where’s the balance between having a healthy imagination and getting carried away with your thoughts?
— Julia Norton

Let's go back to the materials you use.


Smoke bombs. That’s a very interesting and — I’m assuming — uncommon material. Is using uncommon materials something you actively seek out in your work?


The smoke bombs were a revelation. A lot of what I do as an educator comes back into my practice, and, at the time, I was asking my students a lot of questions about materials and process. What are our materials? What is our process? How are they interchangeable — our hands, our materials, our eyes, our materials? What is a material? And how does that affect the meaning of what you're making?

I was on a residency at Vermont Studio Center, and I went into town with a friend just for fun. And we went to Big Lots. I grew up in New York City, so I don't know what the hell Big Lots is; I didn't grow up going to big box stores in general. But when we went, I was in heaven. It was all cheap, and all weird. It was just before the Fourth of July, so they were selling fireworks for really cheap, and they had all these smoke bombs on sale. So I just bought them all and thought, “let's make something weird.”

I started by throwing them around, seeing how the smoke moved in the space, and taking some photographs. I was really liking the way they looked on paper — it doesn’t really look so different from spray paint from afar, but if you look closely you can see the marks from the charring and the sparks. I like that it's a violent material — painting is usually about being delicate and caressing, but the smoke bombs were this aggressive counterpoint to that.

They led me to think about meaning through materials; how do the materials dictate importance in the work? Not that long after that, I started reading about natural pigments, which was a huge gateway for me — how they're cultivated, how pigments are extracted from the process. A lot of them come from animals. Cochineal comes from beetles, and ivory black comes from cow bones. Or plants are boiled down, or rocks are chipped away or created through volcanic activity; there are all these interesting aggressive and slow-moving ways that pigments are created in the natural world. There's an element of death and destruction involved in creating these colors that reminded me of the smoke bombs. But while synthetic pigments are all born in the lab, natural pigments are all related to some sort of past history — both geologic and cultural. So all of that intense history that comes with the natural pigments is now 100% what I’m invested in my practice, and it actually originated from smoke bombs.

Let's talk about your current practice, then. What have you been working on in this residency? And what materials and natural pigments have you been using here?

So when I started using natural pigments, it was all earth-based, and all pigments I sourced myself. That was started in Iceland, where there's every spectrum of Earth color that you can imagine. And then I started to adopt a really good relationship with the staff at Kremer: an old-school pigment store in Manhattan, originally based in Germany. Last September, I started to go down the rabbit hole of the history of pigments, and now I actually teach a class in pigments and pigment history. And in my work I use natural pigments exclusively, and I’ve started painting on paper — partially for the economy of it, but also because watercolor’s one of the easiest ways that you can use a binder for natural pigments.

So now my current practice is really exciting because I'm no longer working in an explicit series — which is something I've done a lot in the past. I've always worked towards a show, or towards something that had an all-encompassing theme. But now the imagery is coming from all kinds of places, and I’ve put no cap on it. It's just going to keep evolving from this point. It’s a really exciting place for me to be. It feels a little more mature than how I've worked in the past.


There are all these interesting aggressive and slow-moving ways that pigments are created in the natural world.
— Julia Norton

Photos by Verónica González Mayoral