Q+A with Brynn Higgins-Stirrup

Companion (To Touch and Be Touched by the World), 2018. 

The Toronto-based multidisciplinary artist, Brynn Higgins-Stirrup, has showcased her work across Canada, the United States and Europe in artist run spaces, fairs, and galleries, including Truck Contemporary (Calgary, AB), Transmitter Gallery (Brooklyn, NY), Modern Fuel (Kingston, ON), and Bucharest Arts Week (Romania). She also held a solo exhibition, The Path, The Divide curated by Oana Tanase at Critical Distance, where she showcased a series of works on paper and a mixed media installation that played with notions of cognitive processes, such as contemplation and unlearning.

Concerned with tensions between the mind and making, concept and craft, Brynn combines drawing, sculpture, photography and video to document traces of embodied problem-solving and play. Drawing on acts of making, mapping and diagramming, she imagines drawing as a generative force – a process which produces and complicates knowledge in its own right.

We wanted to get to know more about Brynn’s artistic practice, so we decided to ask her some questions. Read the interview below as she gives illuminating insights on her work, including where she gets her inspiration, how she develops her ideas, and what she does when she’s not creating.

What is your background and how does it shape your interest in visual art?

I grew up on the borders of Northern Ontario, in what was at that time, a very rural area. It was a place full of silence and solitude, where the landscape and material world held great presence. I think as a result, from a very young age, I was excited by the notion of landscape and material. I tried to be attentive to these things and the potential I felt was held within them; quiet moments of making and creation occurring in the soil, the sky, and my own hands. My interests have always lent themselves towards the philosophical. I have always been interested in how the natural world, the senses, and our minds come together to gain knowledge of the world around us. In terms of educational background, I was originally trained in fairly traditional painting, printmaking and sculptural techniques, and art history.

Where does a project begin for you? How do you develop ideas and themes? What materials and processes do you employ? How do you experiment or play?

My work really evolves through the process of making. Through the time spent in the studio investigating materials and being playful with them. I love to read and look at art — both of these activities deeply affect my making. But I find my best work always comes from the materials and processes themselves, through mapping them out, being playful with them, and exploring how my hands interact and problem solve with the materials.

Lately, I am interested in materials associated with landscapes, processes of mapping and diagramming, and drawing materials. Things like chalk, graph paper, rulers, technical pens, small stones, sand, clay, and soil. The material that really grounds my practice is, however, paper. I love paper because for me it is always a ground for the production, exploration, and excavation of ideas and materials. In the last few months, I was in Japan and Switzerland studying Eastern and Western traditions of paper-making and paper art.

Play and experimentation are really important elements in my practice and often it is their trace or documentation that becomes the work. I believe in these processes, in their ability to create knowledge and to open us to more expansive possibilities on how we access the visual and material world. Most of this play begins as a sort of testing, an exercising of what materials and processes can be, such as the act of mapping on graph paper or mapping the graph paper itself.

“How to draw a line by the clenching of a fist”, 2018.

How has your practice changed over time?

I think my practice has evolved in terms of my methods of making and approach. Simultaneously, I have always been concerned by the same things, most essentially, within the interconnected complex relationships that exist between looking, making, and knowing. I originally started working as a painter; I love the act of painting and looking at paintings, but eventually it began to feel too heavy with the weight of history and too confined within one final product for me.

Now my main focus, although I often approach it sculpturally, is drawing. I like drawing because for me it connects so much more with the most foundational elements of creativity. Drawing is flexible, ever-changing, and related so directly to processes of looking, taking down information, and learning about the world.

What art/artists/movements/organizations do you most identify with, and why?

I really like to look at a broad range of art and artists. Some artists I keep going back to are Mark Manders, Joelle Tuerlinckx, Lee Ufan, Shusaku Arakawa and Madeline Gins, and Hilma af Klint. The connecting link between all these artists is that they employ their materials in ways that are deeply attentive and considered. I would also argue that all of these artists touch on the relationship and tension between notions of the phenomenal and playful, and objective and rational modes of knowing which I find very exciting.

As for movements, I love the way Medieval Art shares a very specific worldview, and reminds me of how tenuous the conceptual frameworks we set up around our world can be. I find Early Abstraction incredibly beautiful and I like reading about the spiritual motivations of the artists. I also love Minimalism’s attention to the materials as subjects, and Conceptualism’s play between visuality and language.

My favourite institution is the Drawing Center in New York. I always love visiting their exhibitions. Their catalogues have created an exciting, broad, and in-depth account of historical and contemporary drawing practices.

What memorable responses have you had to your projects, and have they changed the way you think about art-making?

I like people engaging physically with my work, changing their posture, crouching down to look at the details of the floor works. A professor of mine who took his student to see my work told me that some of the students were lying down on the floor in the gallery to find a vantage point of the topology of my work.

At residencies and during my MFA, I have enjoyed discussing about my work with thinkers from other fields: mathematicians, poets, writers, and historians. They all bring something different to the conversation and expand my understanding on how people perceive my work. I am always happy when people are excited by the materiality of my work, when they want to touch it and when they respond to a certain futile humour with a half smile.

Exercise in Stationary Movement (To Not Touch but to Think about Touching), 2017.

On a day off, what are some of your favourite things to do?

I like reading novels of all kinds. I like to swim and spend time in nature. I like to go for walks, drink coffee, have long conversations, pet any dogs and cats that happen to be around, and like everyone else, I sometimes like to watch tv.

What are you reading and listening to these days?

I always keep several books on the go — right now I am reading Watership Down by Richard Adams (a childhood favourite). For my work, I am reading Thought in the Act by Erin Manning and The Aesthetic of Play by Brian Upton. Together they argue for acts of making, movements, and play as epistemological acts — acts that produce knowledge in their own right. I like to listen to Krista Tippet’s podcast “On Being” most weeks and I like to watch nature documentaries.

Do you have any contemporary artists whose work you feel deserves more attention?

I worked with Michael Whittle in Japan last year whose diagrammatic work I really like. He also has a great blog on his website on diagrams in art. I also worked with a sculptor last year at Anderson Ranch Gabriela Salazar whose work is really exciting and who I learned a lot from.

A few young artists whose work I respect are Tegan Moore, Thea Yabut, Hanna Hur, Erica Prince, Shane Darwent, Carolyn Gennari, and Ruth Burke.

Do you collect anything? What and why?

I like to collect rocks, dirt samples, flowers, post cards, and pieces of paper. They can be beautiful, unusual, funny, or extremely ugly in a way that makes them very likeable. I like to collect things because sometimes you see something that you will never see again. And to hold a thing in our hand and spend time with it is something different than a memory, which can also lead to different ideas.

What are you working on right now?

I just finished my MFA a few months ago, so right now I am taking a hiatus from intensive making to consider where my practice is and how to move forward. But since I really enjoy spending time in the studio, I am currently working on some paper and photo-based collages that stem from a book work I starting during final thesis semester titled Extraneous Matter. I am using this time to extend the possibilities of this project through drawing and re-collaging the original book work.

Extraneous Matter, 2018.

To see Brynn Higgins-Stirrup’s full portfolio, visit her website here.

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