We caught Sarah Hirneisen the day before she had to give up her Mills College studio tucked away in the woods on the lush, fairyland campus. She's originally from Pennsylvania Dutch country and her artwork digs deep into her family tree and its roots. She combines studies of systems and collections, casting symbolic objects in resin, bronze, and glass. We were treated to a double feature of the artist's work: in her cabinet-of-curiosities studio, and her stunning thesis show at the Mills College Art Museum next door. Enjoy.
You've just become a Master of Fine Arts. How does it feel and what will you do next?
Sarah Hirneisen: It's funny because it feels kind of anticlimactic actually. We're losing the community here so it's important for me to find another space with other artists. Also, we have a great shop so it's sad to leave that, too. I have an amazing studio with the woods behind me, and there's a wild turkey that likes to run around out back.
For me, the goal is to keep making work. I'm big on daily practices. The next project I want to do is about collections. I just got all these books on people who collect, and the psychology behind collecting, and Americana. There's a specific tradition in America around collecting. And I'm working on a piece in cast resin where I collect things that people didn't intend to drop. If I'm walking around and I see something, I'll just pick it up and put it in my pocket. It has to be something they didn't intend to drop, like an earring, not a cigarette butt.
The work I did for my thesis show was a family collection where I was assigning a knot to each person in my family based on their hobby or occupation. I liked thinking about what people collect, like animal heads, doilies, and strange things. I grew up in a house with a deer head on the wall.
Is that where the idea for your fiberglass deer sculpture came from?
SH: Yes my dad is a hunter so the deer sculpture was for him. It's tied up with the hunter's bend knot.
What does he think of it?
SH: He hasn't seen it yet, but he knows that he traumatized me because I was a vegetarian at age 14.
Give us another example of who the knots represent.
SH: I have a key to the work that's a print. I made prints directly from knots. There is one knot per person. I made the knots three dimensionally and the butcher's knot reappears quite a few times because my great grandfather was a butcher. My great uncles were also butchers. I actually got the leg of a cow and made a mold of it and then did cold cast bronze, which is resin impregnated with bronze powder.
How did you become so interested in knots?
SH: At the end of our first semester at Mills, Ron Nagle gave each of us a fortune cookie. You couldn't tell anyone your fortune and you had to make a piece that responded to it. I don't even remember what my fortune was, but I ended up doing this project with knots, and just fell in love with them. I got different books and researched them. I loved the idea of a knot being a stand-in for a person because there is all of this history around knots; they were used for record keeping. One of the pieces in the show is a knot calendar. I would cut a knot a day, and also do a little sketch every day. I'm still doing it while the show is up so I've added one more strand. I had read that in Greek times, if a sailor was going on a trip, he would leave a strand of knots with his wife so she could untie or cut one a day to know when to expect him back.
Tell us more about how your family inspires your work.
SH: After having my daughter, my work definitely became more about my family, and I became interested in doing pieces that were directly about them. I grew up in Pennsylvania in a tiny little town northwest of Philly. One thing that happened recently, before I came to Mills, was that my sister came out as being transgendered. She was born as my brother. My family had a hard time with it because they're so traditional; a blue-collar, working-class family. They just don't quite get it, so I did a piece for her where I remade her childhood as a little girl. That's when I really started looking back at my family and even all the handicraft that's back in Pennsylvania. I like making things and crafting things, and the element of the hand is important to me.
In your earlier work, your process often involved interactions with other people, sometimes by mail?
SH: I'm always interested in the interaction with the viewer and involving them more. One of my concerns with this body of work that was specifically about my family was how people would be able to enter into it. I was hoping they'd be able to see their own relationships to their family and think about what knot they would be. I have done more participatory pieces like a project on Twitter where I created postcards and asked people to use them to send me their tweets by mail.
What are your favorite materials to work with?
SH: My undergraduate degree was from RISD. My major was glass and I love transparent things, obviously. I like using resin because it has that similar quality but you can do a lot more with resin than you can with glass. It's lightweight, although it's a little more toxic. I'm interested in fabric and other casting materials. One of the pieces in the show is a quilt that I cast in rubber. I also really like lead. I recently discovered you can melt it on a hot plate so it's easy to cast with, and it's really malleable.
Tell us about your hand-drawn wallpaper.
SH: I drew wallpaper, but this version I actually scanned and printed. It's a pattern of little knots. I felt like it made my work more domestic. I like the idea of it being something like a hybrid between your family sitting room and a cabinet of curiosities, or some sort of museum of oddities. My mom was always into decorating so there was a lot of wallpaper in our house.
If your art had a soundtrack, what would it be?
SH: Anything by Deerhunter. The music is amazing and it's fitting with my dad's knot.