Gertrude Art Editor, J. M. Jansen, interviewed Portland arist, Molly Alloy, whose collection, Animal Body, is on display at the Red E Cafe in Portland until July 8th.
J. M. Jansen: Can you remember some of your first experiences with art? What were they and how did they inform your current work?
Molly Alloy: ‘Artists’ was really my first self-proclaimed identity, and that happened so early that I really can’t recall formulating it; it’s somehow the most fundamental part of me. And I was given a lot of access and support and opportunity in that all along, so for me my human development and my artistic development are entirely intertwined. I had a best friend throughout my childhood who was just as into art as me, so we would be art-making in pretty much all of our play- drawing up plans for playhouses, making dolls by stapling two drawings together and stuffing it with tissues, and creating tiny versions of everything. We made a safe space just the two of us, where we could create and imagine so freely- I think that was really formative for me.
J. M. Jansen: Where are you from originally? Did your childhood have an impact on you as an artist?
Molly Alloy: I grew up in St. Louis, MO, and certainly I think that city and culture affected me as an artist a great deal. For one thing, St. Louis has an incredible number of truly world-class museums and cultural centers that are free to the public all the time, and I think that instilled in me a deep sense that the arts are best when all types of folks can consume them together, and often, rather than being held apart from everyday life. At the same time it really wasn’t a totally safe place to grow up queer, but I think that just made my artistic voice that much more important to me.
J. M. Jansen: Color is a very important part of your work. Can you talk about your use of color in these paintings specifically and in your work in general?
Molly Alloy: It’s awesome to me that people respond so much to the color in my work, because it’s something that I hardly even think about- that part of the work is totally intuitive, there’s really no conscious intention in the colors… So if that’s speaking to people that makes me feel good because it’s so natural, it makes me feel appreciated in a deep way, actually. But I have no idea what it is about the colors that speaks to people, or what they think it's saying.
J. M. Jansen: Many pivotal events in your life led up to the creation of this work. Can you explain how these events helped shape the work of Animal Body?
Molly Alloy: Yeah, so the short-ish version of events is that I was in a car wreck that then triggered a severe escalation of a disease I have called Endometriosis; the combination of the two rendered me temporarily disabled for more than two years, and resulted in my having a radical hysterectomy, where they removed every part of my reproductive system (plus some). Since I couldn’t use my body enough to make sculpture, I turned to drawing as a way for me to be doing something- anything!- to have a creative outlet during this ordeal. By the time of the hysterectomy I had found my voice in drawing for the first time, really, and I decided that I wanted to use the vulnerability of my experience to create a collection that was as direct and open as possible.
J. M. Jansen: Tell me more about the materials you’ve used to create the paintings.
Molly Alloy: I do not consider myself a painter, rather I identify as an installation artist and sculptor, and I think this collection actually belies that in the materials. The paintings are all on wood, and the wood has its own voice in a way- adding texture and substance, physical depth that I find is both a conceptual compliment to the pieces and heightens their impact. In many cases the wood is exposed in areas- to me this is part of the search for honesty in the work; rather than wanting to create something that looks perfect and entire, I want the viewer to feel the effort, the movement of my body making the work, and the history of that as an object. It’s the nod to the object itself, that the sculptor in me can’t resist.
J. M. Jansen: Each painting seems to have a story contained within it. Can you tell the story of one or two of the paintings?
Molly Alloy:Sure, of course. Each painting is essentially a collage of some specific narrative elements that do tell some kind of story to me, but couldn’t possibly be reassembled by the viewer. I want it that way so that the viewer’s own story is the first thing they see, but at the same time this whole project for me is practising radical acceptance of my own story, and sharing that story freely is part of it. So, I’ll start with the painting that sort of kicked this whole thing off for me, which is Once, Twice, Three Times a Lady. It portrays two specific watershed moments for my sexual identity- one was the dream I had that made me understand I was queer for the first time, the other when I put on a packing dildo for the first time. When I made that it actually made me super uncomfortable, it very much challenged my self acceptance and brought up feelings of shame. But somehow I also kind of loved the painting. I remember thinking “This is the first real painting I’ve ever made”. So I brought it to show a women’s therapy group that I was working with at the time and they said stuff like ‘beautiful’ and ‘cool’, and it was so healing and encouraging that I felt like if that was ok, anything was ok. The other story I’ll tell is a funny one- so I made a few paintings that are my name, because I was thinking about these different representations of identity and my graffiti history, but one of those, Molly (teal), is on a repurposed previous painting. And now I think that’s the best part of it, because there’s a little spot where you can see just enough to make out letters. Well, I’d totally forgotten it until we hung the show, but I realized it used to say “Every time you go away, you take a piece of me with you”, because when I woke up from surgery, the first time, I think, my surgeon told me that I’d been singing that to her right before I went under! I love that story.
J. M. Jansen: Which piece did you have the most fun creating?
Molly Alloy: That’s an interesting question… I had a lot of emotional engagement with this work, so there were some pieces that were really moving for me to make, but not what I’d exactly call ‘fun’. I suppose I had the most fun making DaVinci and the Whale, because that piece I had decided what I wanted to make, and that I wanted to make it in the days leading up to the show. I’m such a procrastinator that I knew I needed to leave something for the end or else I'd end up leaving everything for the end, so that was the piece I chose, and the scale of it along with the time pressure made it end up feeling almost performative to make it. I was so excited to be physically capable of such a thing again, too, that it was quite exhilarating.
J. M. Jansen: What elements of our culture impact your work? Things like fashion, street art, skate culture...something like that...
Molly Alloy: I kind of came up through the graffiti and street art movement. St. Louis has a really vibrant graffiti scene and it was a place where you were only judged by the work, since often the artists working in the same areas were anonymous to each other. I love how incredibly much can be done with lettering and how graffiti integrates fine art, design, and pop culture. The older I get, the more radicalized I become and the more I understand that the most suppressed voices in our culture are the most honest and nuanced, so now I pay a lot of attention to young activists and the black and queer communities for my cultural inspiration. Especially in terms of fashion and design- I’m so inspired by those places where fine art touches down in everyday places like clothing and housewares, but also really sensitive to the story those things are telling. Too often fashion and design are just trying to tell a story of wealth and power, and it’s a shame because the story-telling power of objects can be put to such good use- so I am learning to be more savvy about seeking the taste-makers who are telling a more complex story.
J. M. Jansen: Is there an artist or a couple artists that you are inspired by?
Molly Alloy: The first artist I ever fell in love with is Egon Schiele. I came across a book of postcards at a museum shop, I was maybe seven or so, and it was like time froze. I was so riveted. Now I can see how the movement of his mark making, the high contrast color application, the way the sloppy lines actually make the figures seem more alive- all that is still influencing me a lot today. But more than anything, that bold white outline he uses really works on me, and I appropriate it liberally. As far as mark making and process, Basquiat is the other icon who stands out to me- everything I see of his gives me that best kind of jealousy, where I wish I had made it. As for ‘who I want to be when I grow up’ kind of inspiration, my #1 is Yayoi Kusama. She is her work, and her work brings you into her world so directly and so effectively. For me, she is flawless and what her work achieves is a great inspiration.
J. M. Jansen: How has your process evolved as a result of creating this body of work?
Molly Alloy: Well, it sort of feels like I’ve finally found a process that actually works for me, that channels my voice. the basic idea is that I make the drawings first, and then paint in the background- if you look closely you can tell that the figure ground is reversed. I’ll make a couple drawings and then when I move in closer, doing the painting, I can’t see the whole thing anymore, especially on the larger works, and so I’m in the painting and making all these little choices- when I pull back out I see something unexpected, there’s room for give and take in that way and that’s what draws me into the piece and moves it forward. I’m enjoying it so much I already have new work started in my studio- I thought I’d want to finally start working sculpturally but the painting process is still calling me.
J. M. Jansen: You’ve said some aspects of the work are the result of coming to realize that you were a victim of child sexual trauma. How has this realization impacted your work? Have you experienced a sense of healing as a result of creating the work?
Molly Alloy: Yeah, it’s been healing all along. It’s always healing for me, making work, although with this project that was one of my objectives in a way, in making the work, and that’s something I’ve never done. But it’s really about taboo breaking for me- I get started on a painting, and then things come up and I feel bashful or confused or ashamed and I can recognize those feelings as a sign that I’m feeling some judgement towards what’s coming through. But it’s just a painting and I can follow the process and see it transforming, and in there somewhere those taboo’s I’ve been holding are being diffused. Sharing the work with others extends that, because it just reaffirms that sense of acceptance, which is stabilizing and makes me feel comfortable in the risk of that exposure.
J. M. Jansen: It’s hard to miss that there are a lot of dildo images in this work! How does sexuality and queer identity play a part in your artwork?
Molly Alloy: Haha, yeah, the dildo is one of my most essential characters in the narratives of this collection. It’s something that conveys so much dynamic meaning that it even tells a story all by itself, like I explored in Monolith. But also I see that there is something about the penis that I am still working through, there is an exploration happening in the work, and I don’t have all the answers on where that’s headed. For now, I see it as an appropriation, I am re-framing that body part and all that it implies, as gentle, soft (harmless), or literally object-ified in dildo form as something to be claimed (still harmless). As for queer identity in my work- I used to be afraid that if I got a reputation for making penis art I’d be labelled a Lesbian Artist. It’s one of many places I’ve come to recognize my internalized homophobia manifesting. More recently a friend referred to me as her ‘favorite queer radical artist’ and I was delighted and flattered, so there’s progress!