by Jennifer Vande Zande

The labor intensive nature of Denise Whitebread Fanning's work is in direct contrast to its transitory existence, but that doesn't bother the Philadelphia native, a recipient of an ArtServe Michigan Creative Artist Grant. While her object-based sculpture and large-scale installations may take months to complete, those installations may be available to an audience for a relatively short period of time in comparison. It is that ephemeral nature that motivates Fanning. It is her desire that those who view her work will fully participate in and reflect upon what they see, and thus the experience will live on long after the work has been disassembled and removed. In her latest work, Homeland Security, Fanning— fueled by her drive to create and the intense emotions that come with motherhood—has blended both the roles of mother and artist within a society fed a steady diet of fear from big media conglomerates.

Jennifer Vande Zande: How did you discover your talent?

Denise Whitebread Fanning: I'm not entirely certain that I really have yet. When I was younger I wanted to be a fashion designer. I learned to sew at a young age and made many of my own clothes in high school. I began taking art classes to learn how to better draw my designs, but discovered that I enjoyed the process of making art to be more fulfilling. I was quite dedicated to the pursuit of being good at making art. I had a couple of wonderful peers who were highly talented, which drove my desire to be as good or better. My competitive spirit manifested itself as hard work and many late and labored hours honing my craft. I suppose it was through this process that I discovered the vein that would continue to feed my pulse for the next twenty years. And as well, set the stage for my impulse, or tendency, to make labor-intensive work. Ironically, in recent years I have come back to making clothes for income and I now live a dual existence, making art that costs me money and making clothes that bring in money. I consider both my careers.

JV: Who were/are your artistic influences?

DWF: I have many. My early influences were probably not so unique, but I should speak first to the artists that inspired my real passion for making, that drove my first real bursts of energy. I was absolutely inspired early on by artists that portrayed the human condition. German Expressionist, Kathe Kollwitz grabbed onto my heart at a young age and ripped it wide open with her unabashedly raw emotion and phenomenal draftsmanship. She taught me about light and dark, both literally and figuratively. I loved Alice Neel for her honest observations and her quirky hand and eye. Egon Schiele for his delicate and perfect simplicity. Followed shortly in the three dimensional realm by some obvious greats: Michelangelo, August Rodin, Camille Claudel and Medardo Rosso, Alberto Giacometti. Rodin and Claudel taught me how to model clay. How to discover form and fall in love with its discovery process. They took my hand off of my paintbrushes and thrust it into the clay, and stepped my feet over the line into the three dimensional world, where I have primarily remained. Rosso evoked a visceral reaction in me that I still cannot attach words to. I have deep admiration and adoration for his work. Gaicometti taught me about surface, about building directly, about playing with the distortion of reality.  I don’t model clay or even work with the figure much these days, unless a component of a piece or installation demands it, but I have deep roots in clay modeling and the study of human form and expression.

Later I fell into love affairs with artists like Kiki Smith for her unedited expressive experimentation, her brutal beauty, Antony Gormley for his smart, stoic observations and quiet figures, Magdalena Abakanowicz (my daughter’s namesake) for her scale, her surfaces, her monumental heaviness and beauty combined. Now I’m attracted to artists like Ann Hamilton and Janine Antoni for their thoughtful, labor intensive and evocative installations and performances.

JV: So much of your work is labor intensive, often taking a great deal of time to construct. For example, your piece entitled "What should we do?" for which you created nearly thirty life sized figures in plaster. Do you have a creative process?

DWF: I don't have a set creative process. But I can say that I have found I tend to do things in the most circuitous, and difficult way possible. I often get a glimpse of an idea and then spend months chasing it and trying to find the best mediums, forms or objects with which to articulate the idea or image.

For instance, with the piece you mentioned, “What Should We Do?” my first impulse was to somehow create a crowd hovering over a video image of a flailing mourning dove. I spent the first few months making experimental figures, playing with materials, trying to find the medium I wanted for a large body of figures. I knew these things: I wanted them to be light enough that I could carry them on my own, I wanted them to be affordable to make, and I didn’t want them to be an environmental catastrophe should I decide I couldn’t carry all 30 around with me for the rest of my life. After 3 or 4 months of trial and error, I ended up with simple cast paper, which I employed in a variation on old school kid style paper mache. I then went on to cast 35 or so of them, with the help of an invaluable assistant (the only time I've ever employed one). Once they were all cast, I cut them apart and pieced them back together in various positions, and I handmade one dozen mechanized birds for them to witness flailing. As I was working over several months, doing the tedious work of laying paper, I came to understand the rest of my image and the roundness of my idea. I decided I wanted them to be watching three-dimensional birds as opposed to a video, that I wanted the audience to become part of the piece as they joined the sculpture viewers to peer over their shoulders. And I decided I wanted the birds to be flailing on live grass. The birds' mechanizations were battery powered, so as the batteries died, so did the birds.

While I think I don’t have any set "process," this progression is often the case with me. I get an impulse towards an image, I chase it because it feels "right," and then I unveil its layers for myself through the process of working and discovering.

JV: Is there a material you haven't yet worked with that you would like to?

DWF: Yes, many. Everything is fair game. I haven't come close to working with even a small fraction of the items and materials in the world.

JV: Is there a relationship between nature and your work?

DWF: Not directly. Unless we're talking about human nature. That arises much more frequently. I collect a lot of materials from nature that I find beautiful or alluring. I hold onto them, thinking they’ll one day find their way into my work. But they haven't yet. I mean, I work with sod occasionally, but there's not much that's natural about sod. I'm really attracted to moss. It's appeared in my work as well, and I'm sure it will again.

JV: Were there any particular circumstances in your life that you feel directed you to your medium?

DWF: Yes, absolutely. For the past several years I haven’t had a proper studio, nor proper time allotment to make my work. I am now a full-time mother of two young children with an at-home sewing business. The aforementioned things preclude making art in the way in which I had become accustomed. My home is my sewing studio as well as my art studio now and my working time is when my children are asleep. Last year I put on a solo show under these circumstances, and had to severely re-think my work and working habits in order to pull it off. I had to work small, I had to work modular. I had to work inexpensively. I had to work in ways that weren't terribly messy. I had to make things that wouldn’t require an inordinate amount of on-site installation time because I have a husband who is an always-busy college professor and writer and children that I couldn't leave for long periods of time, due to my husband's schedule.

It seemed at first that I was incredibly limited in my options, but alas, as always, limitations provide opportunity for growth. Ultimately I worked with things like sewing, where I deconstructed bio-hazard suits to make "uniforms" for my family. I worked with newspaper, where I collected headlines of tragedies and disasters, out of which I made a set of paper life rafts for 2 adults and 2 children. I made water "wake" around the boats out of obsessively strung bead phrases, which also gave real and invented instructions for emergency preparedness and response. I worked with video. I worked with large scale origami, I built a portable "chariot" for my children to be carried away to safety on, out of all the supplies one is told to have on hand in the event of various emergencies. I made a series of 16 How-To drawings where I invented tragic scenarios and instructions for futile solutions. Even with working in small and modular ways, pulling together a larger scale show with an 18 month old and a four year old, nearly did me in. Somehow, with many many sleepless nights, and a lot more mess and stress than anticipated, I pulled it off. And survived.

JV: How has having a young family influenced your work?

DWF: At first in ways that were less tangible, literally. I didn't make very much work. But when I came to working more regularly again, it began with the seeds of the ideas that later became Homeland Security. I am quite consumed by my role as mother. This total consumption is something that I cherish and lament, simultaneously. I adore my children, I am enormously grateful for the opportunity being home with them provides. But like most human beings, I found that I needed some time to do things beyond the family and the home, in order to bring my experience back to the family, to bring myself back to my children, more whole. That I was in no way wholly complete without continuing to give attention to the vision that has always driven me, I have always had an intense drive to create, and have worked long hours in the studio. It was a major shift for me to no longer have the liberty to work this way. For a long time I was okay with that, and accepted fully that my attention was exactly where it needed to be; on my family. But slowly the anxiety of not creating crept into my veins. and its pulse grew stronger and stronger until I knew it was essential that I figure out how to re-integrate my work into our lives. I had so many ideas and sketches for installations and work building up in my sketchbooks that were gnawing away at my consciousness. I could no longer neglect the urgency.

In regards to parenting and creating, I always think of the metaphor of "secure your own mask first." That in order to provide oxygen to your family, you must first breathe. For a person blessed and cursed by a creative drive, making is breathing. And so somehow, out of this idea, arose Homeland Security which is as much about the futility of averting potential unknown disasters for oneself and one’s family as it is a series of metaphors for the experience of parenting itself. It's also about loving so much that you can’t let go. It's about being scared to death the world is trying to kill your children. It's about knowing fear is a commodity. It's about the futility of preparation. It's about the necessity to be prepared. It's about love and fear and the giant tangle of confusion those two massive emotions create when enmeshed.

A year after that installation, I'm still working with extensions of the same ideas. Pushing it further, discovering new territory within the idea. I'm working on two exhibitions right now with this work. We'll see if I'm done with this idea when the shows are installed.

JV: Tell us what you find exciting going on in the art world at this time?

DWF: A lot. The art world is utterly pluralistic now. I love that anything goes. That a great idea can manifest without great skill. But that great skill can also still manifest great ideas. I love that great art can arise out the most unexpected places and objects. That it can be a bright skin on an abandoned building or that it can be an intricately carved delicate blade of grass, implying an abandoned gallery. That it can be a conversation between seemingly commonplace objects or it can be a traditional style painting with contemporary commentary, That it can be a large scale interactive installation, or it can be a a Skype conversation, a YouTube video, a computer generated print-out.

Most relevant to my own life, or history, I'm fired up about the exciting things going on in Detroit. There’s a fantastic energy swirling around right now, as so many fearless, bright and often entrepreneurial artists are reinventing the identity of art in the city, and thusly, helping to reinvent the city itself. There are exciting things happening with the integration of art and urban agriculture. There are quiet, spell-binding installations being built in long-abandoned buildings and warehouses. There are buildings being covered in neon paint, or tagged with polka dots. While so many others are flocking away from Detroit, artists from all over the world are flocking into it, now privy to the uber-cheap rents and mortgages, and the limitless possibility. There are unconventional galleries and live/work spaces popping up with much greater frequency. It is a wonderfully exciting time for artists in Detroit. While I love my new town and home, I am deeply saddened to have had to move away from the vibrant art community that is Detroit.

JV: Would you discuss your current projects?

DWF: I’m preparing for two exhibitions right now.

For one show I was invited to show a specific piece. I am building a fairly large portable piece called "Bunker Buggy (Emergency Escape Chariot)." I built a variation on this piece in my Homeland Security exhibition last year, but this time it is bigger, more bogged down, and more elaborate. It’s essentially a handmade cart on wheels, carrying all of the advised survival gear and supplies for a family of four, for a minimum of three days, for varying emergencies. I built it chariot style, so that it can be pulled away from home in the event of emergency or say, post-apocalyptic America. The entire form is shaped from the objects one is advised to have on hand for emergency purposes, which are many. I built in seats for my kids, so they could be pulled atop the "stuff." This idea arose as I was researching for my Homeland Security work, and looking into various disaster preparedness handbooks. I couldn't help but wonder just how much space all that stuff would occupy if a person actually tried to be that prepared. The floor is a shipping pallet and the form is wrapped into position with plastic wrap. It has a canvas canopy like a vacation surrey bike. It’s meant to make emergency escaping "fun for kids." It’s as much about attempting to prevent loss as it is about futility, as it is about excess and the commodification of fear.

The other show is called Shelter, and I was invited to be involved specifically because of the relationship my Homeland Security show has to the idea of "Shelter." So for this show I am also working with extensions of the Homeland Security idea. I’ll be showing the deconstructed bio-hazard suit uniforms I made for my family. My husband and son have 3 piece suits (all pure white). My daughter and I have white dresses. They all have ID tags sewn into them with information similar to a military dog tag. They provide name, date of birth, blood type, religious preference, who to notify in case of death, etc. I’m making a set of umbrella containment vessels to accompany the uniforms. They are also made from deconstructed bio-hazard suits for the umbrella outers and I used fabric of bright blue skies with pretty clouds for the lining (you know, to keep our heads in the clouds). When opened, they all fold out into personal containment vessels. On the tops of each umbrella, over and over in small font, I have obsessively sewn the phrase, "open. up. when. in. danger. remain. inside." this phrase is sewn repeatedly, in decorative fashion, to create the overall form of a larger letter on the top of the umbrella. The four umbrellas, when all opened up together, read from above: H E L P .

I’m also making a cross-stitch, of all things. It’s a large traditional "sampler" I designed with the ABC’s of Emergency Preparedness. Each letter gives an instruction for emergency preparedness or response. Many of the instructions can also be read metaphorically or can be cross referenced to family. For instance, "Stop.Look.Listen." "Identify your exits" or "Secure your own mask first." I really wanted this to be a long-labored piece that has the appearance of being something a mother painstakingly prepared for her family. It’s a bit morose, and a bit ridiculous.

Along with these, I’m showing several other pieces that relate to the idea of shelter, be it metaphorical sheltering, or literal.

With an M.F.A. in Sculpture from Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and a B.F.A. from Eastern Michigan University in Sculpture and Painting, Denise Whitebread Fanning is a sculptor whose work has been exhibited widely in the Detroit area as well as nationally and internationally. She is the recipient of an ArtServe Michigan Creative Artist Grant, and was featured in exhibitions in both Berlin, Germany, and Detroit, Michigan, showcasing emerging contemporary artists. She lives in central Michigan with her husband, poet Robert Fanning, and their two small children.

You can currently view some of her work at the Oakland University Art Gallery until Oct 17th. Also, on October 21st there is a free public opening of her work at the Central Michigan University Art Gallery from 4-6 pm. Her work will be on display there until mid-November.

© Jennifer Vande Zande, 2010