3 Questions with Anna Von Mertens
Artist Anna Von Mertens on daydreaming, building a career, and upending what you thought was true.
3 QUESTIONS is a series of brief, three-question interviews with PNCA’s visiting artists and lecturers. Each year, PNCA attracts innovative, thoughtful, and creative makers and thinkers who share our belief in the transformative power of creativity. In three short answers to three short questions, these artists offer perspectives on career, motivation, and transformation. When available, we include links to audio recordings, transcripts, slideshows, or video.
The MFA in Visual Studies welcomes Anna Von Mertens as part of the 2013-2014 Graduate Visiting Artist Lecture Series. This lecture is co sponsored by Elizabeth Leach Gallery in conjunction with Anna Von Mertens’ exhibition Above, between and in.
“When in doubt, head back into the studio.”
What advice would you offer current students about to embark on a career in the arts?
You don’t have to take on your entire career at once. Take it one step at a time. Focus on what is in front of you: getting your first show after grad school and making sure you knock that out of the park. One opportunity leads to another, one connection leads to another. Just focus on doing what you are doing and do that well. The rest will fall into place.
When in doubt, head back into the studio.
How do you maintain your creative practice? What keeps you motivated and engaged?
I make very contained bodies of work. That results in a cycle to the making: there is the research/daydreaming phase. (If I’m honest, the first phase is the anxious phase–what is next?! Then the research phase happens.) There is the joy and challenge of diving into the work and figuring it out visually, technically, intuitively. There is the process of getting the work seen. I’ve tried to embrace this too as part of the artistic process–even the act of crating the work! While some elements feel more “creative” than others, it is all part of making the work real.
Once the work is out there I am able to stand back and take it in. I move forward with my favorite kernel from the previous series and see where that leads me. The process feels new every time.
There is also the simple truth that whenever I stop making work (sometimes I’m talking two weeks) it doesn’t feel right. It feels good to make things.
Could you describe a moment or experience that profoundly changed the nature of your work?
I often joke that in grad school I signed my own personal manifesto vowing to keep my work in the form of the bed. This is when I first began making “conceptual quilts” and felt the need to define myself and defend the territory of the work.
I arrived at this staunch point of view because I had seen textile art fail trying to compete with painting. I wanted to embrace the strengths inherent in the quilt medium. So I committed to hand-sewing and presented my work as “bed sculptures.” Using mapping as a broad theme, I used the bed as an orientation point and explored “true north”: how we navigate through this world, and how we at times feel lost.
As much as I originally committed to the context–and constraints–of the bed, I began to look longingly at the wall, the place I had sworn never to put my work. I had the revelation that painting wasn’t the enemy, but how I viewed the wall: as something you look at. I liked my sculptures being something you coexist with. But if my work was about the act of looking, it suddenly belonged on the wall.
I landed on the idea of stargazing, the quintessential act of looking. Using star calculation software, I determined the stars seen over historical events and stitched them into memorials. The ideas and work evolved from there.
I discovered even sworn statements in one’s practice can be examined and reversed. I am reminded of that potential every time I begin a new body of work.
Anna Von Mertens from the worlds of craft, conceptual art, and modernist painting. Her work uses history in order to subjectively interpret sets of data through the act of hand-stitching. Her most recent body of work debuted at Boston Center for the Arts in 2013 with her series Migrations, Invasions, Plagues and Empires; quilted panels with stitch patterns derived from tree ring cross-sections dating to key moments in human history. Solo exhibitions have been exhibited at the Berkeley Art Museum; Boston Center for the Arts, Mills Gallery; University Art Museum, Cal State Long Beach; University Art Museum, UC Santa Barbara; Crisp-Ellert Art Museum, Flagler College; Sara Meltzer Gallery, New York, NY; Jack Hanley Gallery, San Francisco, CA; Elizabeth Leach Gallery, Portland, OR; Mills College Art Museum, Oakland, CA; Headlands Center for the Arts, Sausalito, CA; and Southern Exposure, San Francisco, CA. Recent works have been included in the 2013 Rijswijk Textile Biennial (Netherlands); 40 under 40: Craft Futures at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery (Washington, D.C.); Uncontainable Portraits at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; a commissioned work for Ballroom Marfa; and the 2012 DeCordova Biennial. Von Mertens’ work is in the permanent collections of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Berkeley Art Museum, the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery, and the Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Art and Design, among other institutions. Von Mertens is the recipient of a 2010 United States Artists Simon Fellowship and a 2007 Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Biennial Award. She received her MFA from California College of the Arts and her BA from Brown University. She lives and works in Peterborough, New Hampshire.