Siena Baldi is an artist who was selected for the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts' YoungArts Program featured in HBO's Masterclass Series released in 2012. One of five young artists invited by Olafur Eliasson to Germany as part of a masterclass workshop to learn about environmental art and discuss critical contemporary art issues. Siena is inspired by a multi-disciplinary range of fields making her experience with Olaf a rewarding pairing. She was one of 150 teenagers from an application pool of more than 7,000, who were invited to participate in workshops with world-class artists such as Olafur Eliason.
Since graduating from Washington University College in Saint Louis, she has continued to strive and push her boundaries. With friends, she started the non-profit MITCH Collective run out of her mother's childhood home in Martins Ferry, Ohio that was slated to be torn down before Siena saw the opportunity to turn it into something new. It is now an artist's colony about 65 miles from Pittsburgh, PA. MITCH stands for Mastering Innovation Technology and Creativity Home. The group is dedicated to cultivating dialogue between the local community and visiting artists. They have received support from The National Quilting Association, Spark: Supporting the Pittsburgh Kids + Creativity Network and the Ohio River Border Initiative Arts Network.
Siena and the MITCH Collective have also collaborated with TechShop which is an open fabrication hub for makers that provides members with access to wood shops, metal shops, CNC equipment, and even sewing and digital embroidery machines. TechShop has successfully set-up facilities in select cities around the US. Siena teaches in TechShop Pittsburgh, now made famous by President Obama's visit in 2012 that spotlighted emerging technologies and materials changing the face of manufacturing. Siena is a prime example of an artist not only striving to make art but also striving (and succeeding) to make something bigger than herself or as she calls it, artrepreneurship.
Knotwe asked Siena some questions on her more recent works such as her Calavera quilt. The quilt is a large work that Sienna completed in 2014 and has exhibited in the Revision Space, a gallery in Pittsburgh, PA. She utilized laser cutting for preparing the swatches of fabric that she then assembled. She shares some of her process with various projects on the MITCH Collective blog that are terrific insights into this hard-working artist.
Q: One of the really nice things about your work is that there are layers for the viewer to experience either through pattern, diversity of materials, in the imagery or even the color. What role has printmaking had on your exploration of pattern and layers?
A: My choice to major in Printmaking/Drawing was somewhat random, but it ended up being serendipitous because of my fixation on process. I work in a generational manner, starting at one point and reworking it in multiple iterations until it becomes something entirely different. Printmaking subdivides into several different elements such as platemaking, printing, and reworking. The mutability of just one matrix by changing how it is printed opens up the possibilities of monoprints to infinity. Layering patterns and plates in various orientations is a no risk situation because if you don’t like something you can always print over it. Just go for it now and analyze later is how I approach art-making. So printmaking works beautifully with that mentality and it keep ideas from getting too precious.
I love the trust involved in my studio practice. I will be overwhelmed with motivation to make a certain thing and initially it seems odd or out of place, but once enough time elapses I look back and realize it’s a perfect encapsulation of one or more themes I’ve been exploring. One example of this is last October I decided to be a color blindness test for Halloween. The idea came out of nowhere while I was perusing vintage clothes in Ann Arbor, MI. I translated my Along for the Ride image into a multicolor screen print and in addition to creating a t-shirt for me to wear I thought I might as well print some on paper. The resulting prints mesmerized me and I knew I needed to make more.
Drawing hundreds of circles at first seemed like a strange choice, but I went with it. Now I understand my fascination with color blindness tests stems from ideas of Emergence and Dazzle Camouflage. The idea of hiding in plain sight and how small inconsequential elements can add up to something greater than the sum of their parts. I created a series of obfuscated diagrams called Show Me Yours I’ll Show You Mine that reveals a lot of personal information, but in a confusing way in order to create a veil of privacy.
Q: Your work seems to have taken a direct shift to a more concentrated focus on pattern and more simplified imagery in particular Calavera is a very strong piece. Pattern is at the core of quilting so focusing on quilting as a vehicle for that exploration has had terrific results for you. What drove you to include textiles and more specifically quilting into your work?
A: Textiles stole my heart at a young age. I started off sewing clothing for myself and got hooked on how completely customizable it is. I discovered quilting later on and ended up making up my own approach. I’ve never been classically trained in quilting, but am drawn in by the different steps in the process. I don’t like having to plan something all the way out from beginning to end. I prefer taking baby steps. Both printmaking and quilting allow time to jump back and forth between working maniacally with my hands and pausing to see what needs to be reworked.
Q: How would you describe how you compose your pieces that make use of the quilting? Is it purely a method of assembly for the work or is there a history to quilting or something in the process specific to quilting that has inspired the work?
A: For me the history of quilting is most interesting in places like Gee’s Bend as opposed to perfectly manicured quilt tops. I appreciate the concept of Quilt Bees where many people gather to work on one quilt, but I look at quilting as drawing with thread and at this point I prefer to have full control. The binding of three layers (top, batting, and backing) is a type of constriction to create the illusion of permanence. I find the structure of quilting to be reassuring. Like tight french braids when running around on the soccer field.
Q: The Calavera piece is hypnotic and the quilt optically vibrates really focusing the viewer over and over again to the image of the skull. It reminds me of Op artists like Victor Vasarely or Bridget Riley and even the multi-faceted Damien Hirst. Were any of these artists particularly influential to you? What artists or designers would you say continually inspire or influence your ideas?
A: The Op artists definitely lend inspiration to my interest in optically challenging imagery. The microscopic motivation for Calavera was getting to interact with the contemporary artist Luke Haynes. I hosted him for an artist residency in early 2014 and the colossal scale of some of his quilts made a big impact on me. I was trying to be a good student and learn the right way to piece strips of fabric together, but the traditional small projects were not interesting enough to me. Lightning hit my brain to turn the Color Blindness Test II into a giant quilt so I created my own pattern for the background and ended up getting plenty of practice with detailed piecing in my own way. Part of why I attempted to translate the screen print into fabric is because I have access to a laser cutter as an instructor at TechShop. Currently, I’m very interested in combining art and technology and there are so many talented people working to bridge that gap!
Q: Your title Calavera in spanish translates to skull in english. The image of a skull is a powerful primal icon that has different contexts in different cultures and has significance not only as a cultural icon but also as a popular contemporary icon. What is the significance of the skull for you and what inspired it as a central piece of imagery both in Calavera and for instance the Colorblindness Test II silkscreen piece?
A: The image of the skull burrowed into my brain last year. It is specifically the decorative skulls related to Dia de los Muertos. I started off drawing dozens of iterations, getting fixated on the endless linear design possibilities. My fascination with sugar skulls coincides with my interest in Mexico. I’ve been studying the rich printmaking history in places like Oaxaca and learning Spanish in hopes of someday getting to experience the culture first hand. I’ve been told the bright colors and sinister subject matter of Calavera make an intense philosophical statement. Bright colors illustrating a dark subject matter emphasize the patterns and design that make up the composition. Skulls serve as a reminder of death but also motivation to live life to the fullest. Andy Warhol depicted many a skull in the memento mori (Latin translation: remember that you will die) tradition, but my use of the skull is more in line with the latin phrase carpe diem.
Q: Are there any new projects you are working on?
A: I’m working on a new series of color blindness test-inspired screen prints where the imagery is Hawaiian quilt designs. It’s coming full circle to go from screen prints to quilts back to screen prints of quilts. And that’s just how my mind operates!
I also recently started experimenting with screen printing my own textiles. I’ve sewn the first try into a dress and used the scraps in a mini quilt called Spumonster, which was an experimental translation of a shattered mirror into fabric.
To learn more about:
Revision Space gallery
The National Quilting Association
Pittsburgh Kids + Creativity Network
Ohio River Border Initiative Arts Network