WORKS IN PAPER BY ELSA MORA
JANUARY 18 – APRIL 12, 2020
CURATED BY JILL HARTZ
“Working with a material as simple as paper means that if you want to push the envelope, then you need to push your brain to think outside the box. That can be as frustrating as it can be exciting. This process has taught me that, like people, paper cannot be underestimated in terms of the hidden potential that lies within it.”
Paper Weight is Elsa Mora’s latest exhibition of painstaking works made solely of paper and glue. First exhibited at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene, Oregon, Mora’s 2D and 3D pieces presented in this exhibition are inspired by the cognitive faculties that form the mind: consciousness, perception, thinking,
judgment, language, and memory.
ONE HUNDRED AND ONE NOTIONS
This series is about perception, and it consists of one hundred and one small paper sculptures, each of them representing a mental disorder. Along the process of creating these pieces, I did research about the different mental disorders, some of which I had never heard of. For example, Fregoli delusion is a rare disorder in which a person holds a delusional belief that different people are in fact a single person who changes appearance or is in disguise. This installation is an homage to the human mind and the endless ways in which it expresses itself. It is about the darkness, light, and mysteries of our human condition.
Language, a structure that consists of the development, acquisition, maintenance, and use of complex systems of communication, is the subject behind Oblivious. This series reflects on the unique languages that people produce in their personal realms, artists, in particular, and children. The word oblivious as a title refers not exactly to the lack of concern for what’s happening in our surroundings, but the idea of entering an inner non-dis- tractive zone of self-expression. This series is about the manifestation of language in its most personal form.
Misunderstandings talks about judgement and includes 32 pieces made with the pages and cover of a book titled The Depression Cure: The 6-Step Program to Beat Depression Without Drugs by Stephen Scott Ilardi, Ph.D. Judgment, used in reference to the cognitive faculties, is also called wisdom or discernment and is basically the evaluation of evidence to make decisions. Judgment is one of the mental faculties that affects us most individually and as a society. In turning the pages of this book into small, abstract sculptures, I wanted to demonstrate how any subject is potentially open to interpretations. I chose this book, in particular, because I’m interested in the subject of depression, a mental disorder that is still not completely understood.
Mindscapes is about thinking, the action of using our mind to produce thoughts. Using the brain as a vessel, I created these sorts of “islands” or “landscapes” to represent thought sceneries. If we could actually turn people’s thoughts into landscapes, I think that they would look fascinating. I enjoy watching documentaries about people that have done extreme things, both positive and negative. Most of them look ordinary from the outside, but it’s hard to guess what goes on in their heads and that intrigues me. I’m also fascinated by forensic science and the process of examining the brain to find answers about a person’s actions and behaviors.
Fading is about consciousness (the quality of being aware), and more specifically about the fine line that we cross every day between consciousness and unconsciousness when we go to sleep. The gradation of colors is a visual representation of that state of appearing and disappearing, feeling and not feeling. An idea came to mind that consciousness could be seeing as a collection of small containers carrying everything that we know. I built the small paper “cups” as those containers. Making them had to be done one at a time by cutting circles and applying pressure on them with a metal tool that has a ball on one end, usually used for soft metal embossing.
THE MUSEUM OF BREATH
Created in collaboration with Jill Kearney
Visitors are invited to exhale their concerns into inflatable paper balloons provided. Once inflated, they placed in the large bowl.
WHEN AIR BECOMES WIND
Fabricated by Eric Fiorito and Ulla Warchol
“Air, I should explain, becomes wind when it is agitated.”
― Lucretius, On the Nature of Things
After my autistic son’s hospitalization in 2019 due to psychosis, his ability to speak decreased dramatically, so he discovered air as a new medium for expression. By positioning his hands in particular shapes, he created unexpected musical instruments and generated subtle sounds by blowing air into them. He also sang “songs” consisting of interesting breathing patterns. The time spent through those rituals have become important in his healing process. The pieces ‘The Museum of Breath’ and ‘When Air Becomes Wind’ are inspired by my observations of those experiences and the fact that air, although invisible, is indispensable for human life, so is our need for self-expression, especially during times of suffering and distress.
INTERVIEW WITH ELSA MORA
BY JILL HARTZ
Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art
Eugene, Oregon, 2019
- How did your life/art training in Cuba affect your art and life as an artist?
Growing up in Cuba was my boot camp for creativity. Material restrictions forced us to be resourceful and make the most of anything we had. These became valuable lessons in my creative practice later on. Part of the reason why I enjoy working with paper is that it pushes me to explore new ways of transforming a humble material into something unexpected. Our art teachers were very important as well. Dedicated, encouraging, and engaging, they treated us with respect and their sense of humor made of the learning experience something that I was always looking forward to.
- Could you describe how artists are trained in Cuba?
Art education in Cuba follows a hands-on, rigorous approach that gives the students a solid foundation on which to build their careers. There are specialized schools at elementary, intermediate, and advanced stages across the island. The elementary level, called vocational, goes from 7th to 9th grade. The subjects covered are art history and the technical aspects of traditional media such as drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpture…
The intermediate stage, known as professional or medium-superior, goes from 10th to 12th grade. Here the student is required to choose a medium to specialize in. During those three years, art history continues to be an important part of the curriculum and the chosen medium is explored in great depth. Graduating from this level requires a thesis that is usually the creation of a cohesive body of work.
The most advanced level of art education in Cuba has a duration of five years. Known as Instituto Superior de Arte, (ISA), the main school is located at a historical building in Cubanacán, Havana. At present the ISA has four schools, three for Art and one for Audiovisual Communication Media. There are also four teaching schools in the provinces, one in Camagüey, two in Holguín, and one in Santiago de Cuba. ISA offers pre-degree and post-degree courses, as well as a wide spectrum of brief and extension courses, including preparation for Cuban and foreign professors for a degree of Doctor of Sciences in Art. Most art teachers in Cuba are also practicing artists.
- What was it like making the transition to living in LA, then NY?
Transitioning from Havana to Los Angeles brought positive change to me. Learning English and how to drive were my biggest challenges. It was isolating at first because I didn’t know a lot of people there, but then I discovered The Internet, something that was not allowed in Cuba. The fact that I could develop real friendships and professional relationships through a computer was a miracle to me. Another interesting aspect of being in Los Angeles was the opportunity to observe the film world as an outsider through my husband. I met a number of talented writers, directors, producers, artistic directors…that were encouraging and inspiring. Most of them were from different parts of the world.
After our children were bigger, in 2014, we decided to move to New York, where we still live. We got here right around one of the most extreme winters in the history of the region. My husband Bill is from Chicago so snow was part of his system, but it was not part of mine or our children’s. As a kid, I was in love with the idea of snow, which I had seen only in pictures and movies. The closest I got to it back in Cuba was when my younger brother Alex and I attempted to make “snowballs” out of frost that we scratched out of our Soviet freezer. We never got to make a real ball because the heat melted the frost too fast. Moving here and having so much material for making snowballs was a dream come true. That made the whole transition fun. Living in the countryside, but still not too far from New York City has been ideal. We get to enjoy the best of both worlds.
The most remarkable thing to me about moving to New York has been working for ArtYard, a unique arts organization founded by my friends Jill Kearney and her husband Stephen McDonnell in Frenchtown, New Jersey. Over there I wear many hats, but mostly function as artistic director and do curatorial work as well. I truly enjoy working for ArtYard and being part of a team of people that are intelligent, thoughtful, extremely creative, and caring. I appreciate traveling to New Jersey, and New York City where we have meetings sometimes. But the best part is interacting with artists from the position of a facilitator. Stepping out of your self-centered world as an artist to look into other artist’s realms is enriching, revealing, and it gives me perspective on matters that I wouldn’t be able to be exposed to in isolation.
- How did your work change when you moved to the States?
I will first give you a little bit of context to answer this question. Before I moved to the USA and in terms of what was going on in Cuba in the art world, I was more of an outsider. My first gallery was in fact for outsider artists (Phyllis Kind Gallery in New York and Chicago). Back then, in lieu of dealing with matters specific to Cuba, such as the political system and other issues, I was more inclined to exploring personal subjects rooted in universal human experience. The series of photographs that I did based on Belkis Ayón’s death by suicide, for example, was my way to process her loss.
Working with matters that were not necessarily identified as Cuban, left me out of some local and international projects that reflected on Cuban artists working around Cuban issues. But I had plenty of opportunities to exhibit my art in Havana and other provinces, as well as abroad. And I received visitors in my studio weekly, most of them came from the USA, Italy, Spain, Germany, and some Latin-American countries. They were mostly art collectors, curators, or were connected to the academic world in their countries. One thing that they all had in common was their wiliness to understanding Cuban artists, how they lived, and how they were building successful careers under difficult circumstances. The support of these visitors by purchasing our work and the opportunities that opened up from these visits were important to many artists living on the island.
Once I moved to the USA, those studio visits stopped, and that was the greatest change at first. Most of the people visiting Cuba were interested in Cuba specifically, but in Los Angeles, the city where I had just landed, that wasn’t necessarily the case, except for my friend Darrel Couturier from Couturier Gallery on La Brea Avenue, who worked and still works with Cuban artists.
To summarize the idea of what happened to my work when I moved to the States, I would say that I took it apart and then put back together one piece at a time, in a way that made more sense to the new me. Examining what I had done previously was like opening a machine to see what’s inside and then trying to re-ensemble it, but some pieces didn’t fit and others had to be added to make it work. That’s more or less what happens when you start a new life in a totally new culture.
During that process of reinvention, I became very interested in materials. I spent a great deal of time trying my hands on everything that I could find, such as wool, metal, glass, fabric, paper…Parallel to this and as a way to improve my written English, I started a blog. This combination of exploring new materials and connecting to new people through a language that I didn’t know well, was itself the creative “work” that I needed to do back then. Finally, my career started coming back together in a more cohesive way when I became a mother, and more so when my son Diego was diagnosed with Autism. I reconnected to the subjects that had always fascinated me and started to explore them in more depth from new lenses.
My work continues to change organically. Sometimes in circles of Cuban people, I’m considered a Cuban artist and that is nice because my roots will always be there. In other circles, I’m considered an international artist. I believe that at this point I’m a mix of both.
- When did you start using cut paper in your art, and what are its aesthetic and physical attractions for you?
I started exploring paper in 2007, right when our son Diego was diagnosed with Autism. What attracted me to this material was its unassuming nature. My first tests happened during our son’s therapies. Instead of staying in the waiting room, parents regularly went out for coffee, but making something with my hands at the time was more appealing and comforting. As I played with paper, I heard our son interact with the therapists. The gradual discovery of his potential got interconnected with the hidden possibilities of paper. That’s probably how this material became a metaphor for the mind and its malleability to me. As my son blossomed so did my relationship with and understanding of paper. Life and art sometimes converge in organic ways, such as in this case.
- You mention your son in terms of the work’s inspiration. What about your sister?
My sister was crucial in my understanding of people, the brain, and art. Diagnosed with Paranoid schizophrenia at age 15, she was my introduction to mental illness and the matters of the brain. It was also through her that I discovered poetry and literature in general. Mi sister was a gifted artist that showed different talents at an early age, not only for visual arts but singing and acting. I was fascinated by her wild nature and fearless personality. Watching her draw and paint (sometimes on her own face), was mesmerizing. She talked to me as if I was an adult and I appreciated that. Her openness helped me see the spectrum of her interior life, from the brightest to the darkest areas. I believe that growing up with her planted the seeds of my interest in human behavior.
- Is your image already inside the paper or as you cut does the design become manifest?
It can go either way. Sometimes I have a concrete idea that I want to materialize, while other times it’s all about accidents and being open to the unexpected.
- Tell us about your process of moving from two-dimensional to three-dimensional cut paper works.
Going from flat surfaces to three-dimensional work was a natural part of the process. After spending enough time in the two-dimensional realm, the curiosity kicked in so I found myself going on an adventure into the sculptural cosmos. For some reason volume makes everything look and feel more “real”. Think about watching a film on a screen versus experiencing a live play in a theater. Sculptural paper pieces tend to be more satisfying to me, but there are also some two-dimensional works that I truly enjoy making, especially those with repetitive elements where the process becomes meditative.
- What is informing shape, line and color in your new body of work? It looks like it could be a combination of abstraction, science, and the subconscious.
Your question pretty much includes the answer. I would say that this new body of work is indeed a combination of abstraction, science, and the subconscious. The shape, line and color are informed by my observation of nature and sometimes the inner composition of the human body.
- How did this new body of work challenge you physically and mentally?
Working with a material as simple as paper means that if you want to push the envelope, then you need to push your brain to think outside the box. That can be as exciting as it can be frustrating. Whenever I get stuck, a walk in nature is usually the solution. I’m lucky to live on a farm surrounded by a great variety of vegetation. That has been one of the advantages of moving to Upstate New York.
- Does your work with cut paper influence your work with other media? Are you still working in other media?
Working in other media is a necessity for me. Too much of the same thing affects my ability to stay excited and engaged in the creative process. I’m happiest when I give myself the freedom to jump from one media to the next. While working with paper, I’m sometimes dreaming about other materials and vice versa.
- What’s next in your investigation of the intersection of the brain, literature, writers, and the five cognitive faculties that form the mind? Might you explore this in other medium or material?
Definitely, I want to explore these subjects in other mediums and materials as well as combine them. I’m looking forward to setting up a new studio and finally having the conditions to work in ceramic. Clay is one of my favorite materials so is fabric, wood, glass… they all have unique personalities, just like people. What’s coming next, I exactly don’t know, but that’s what makes me want to keep moving forward.
- Now that you live in the United States full time, what is your relationship to Cuba, both personally and professionally? How would you characterize the Cuban art scene (perhaps from the time you lived there to now? What should Americans know about Cuban art and artists?
My relationship with Cuba is a long-distance one. I’m connected mostly with my father who lives there, and through him, I find out about what’s going on in the country. He visits the USA whenever possible, but right at this time, it has become harder with the new regulations. I’m also connected to friends with whom I sometimes interact via Social Media. And there is my mother who travels there once a year. She lives in Miami, Florida, and gives me reports on the phone about who has died, who’s had a new baby, who got divorced, etc. More than politics we talk about people that we know and their lives. I have noticed that the reports about how things are in Cuba depend on the reporter and their individual situation. Life in the provinces seems to be harder than in Havana, and artists, in general, seem to have more opportunities to make connections outside of Cuba than people who hold regular jobs. What Americans should know about Cuban artists is that they are like the rest of the artists anywhere in the world. They want to have opportunities to develop their careers, they want to have their basic needs covered, and they want to contribute something to society through their practice.
Jill Hartz served as executive director of the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon, Eugene, from 2008 to 2018. She was director of the University of Virginia Art Museum in Charlottesville from 1997 to 2008 and previously worked in various capacities at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University as well as in the publishing field. She has organized numerous exhibitions, primarily in the contemporary art field, and is the editor of five books, including Rick Bartow: Things We Know But Cannot Explain (co-edited with Danielle Knapp, 2015) and Hindsight-Fore-Site: Art for the New Millennium (University of Virginia Press, 2003). Knapp and Hartz co-curated the Bartow traveling exhibition of the same name. Ms. Hartz is currently president emerita of the National Association of Academic Museums and Galleries and a reviewer for professional museum programs, including accreditation. She received her MA with Honors in English Language and Literature from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland in 1973 and pursued undergraduate studies at Oberlin College in Ohio.
Photography by Paul Warchol